The disappearance of artist Ai Weiwei at the hands of Beijing authorities continues to touch off international shock waves. The diplomatic corps of Western powers have issued denunciations of the arrest, while observers in the international art community have begun to raise their voices as well.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner spoke out against the troubling action, stating that "the detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei is inconsistent with the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all Chinese citizens, including China's commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," the Wall Street Journal reports. "We urge the Chinese Government to release him immediately."
Groups like Human Rights Watch, however, were left hungry for a stronger stand from the Obama administration, which is viewed as distracted by budget fights in D.C. and the need to secure Chinese assent for the ongoing assault in Libya, according to Bloomberg.[link:view-slideshow]
Republicans were quick to pounce on Obama's lack of focus on the issue, painting it as weakness in the face of China's trampling of universal rights. Bloomberg quotes Republican representative Randy Forbes, co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus, who says that Obama is "scared to death to speak out on very sensitive issues" regarding China. For his part, Forbes planned to call a meeting with Zhang Yesui, the Chinese
ambassador to Washington, to discuss concerns over the recent crackdown brought into focus by Ai's highly publicized arrest.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that British foreign secretary William Hague issued a statement about the artist: "I call on the Chinese government to urgently clarify Ai's situation and well-being, and hope he will be released immediately." Germany, France, Austria, and the European Union's official delegation in China have all also expressed concern about the Ai Weiwei's whereabouts, and the current wave of detentions of liberal lawyers and intellectuals.
Outside the official political sphere, supporters of the artist have attempted to find ways to voice opposition through smaller gestures. One man, identified as California-based George Ge, launched a Twitter-based petition (twitition.com/ao9m7) titled "Free Ai Weiwei," calling on the government to release the artist. Despite being blocked internally to mainland users by China's "Great Firewall," the petition had drawn several thousand signatures, with Reuters reporting that some Chinese intellectuals have found ways to skirt internet restrictions to join in.
One recent signatory of note is identified as @GaoBrothers, the handle of the Bejing-based avant garde artistic duo Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang. The two have worked with Ai Weiwei in the past, and still feature a picture of themselves with Ai on their personal Web site.
A few other voices in the art world have begun to weigh in as well. Asia Society director Melissa Chiu, who penned an ARTINFO Op-Ed back in January on the subject of "Ai Weiwei and Human Rights in China," has issued a statement putting the artist's arrest into a global context. "Will the Chinese government make Ai Weiwei into the next Liu Xiaobo?" she asks, referring to the imprisoned Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
London's Lisson Gallery, which represents the artist, issued its own statement of solidarity. Ai "serves as an example for legitimate social criticism and free expression both in China and internationally," writes gallery director Greg Hilty. "Lisson Gallery has a long history of working with political artists and we strongly condemn any form of artistic suppression." A solo exhibition by Ai scheduled to open May 13 at the gallery will go on, as will his planned public-art project of animal zodiac heads for Grand Army Plaza in New York's Central Park.
As for the response from media and institutions within China, the Wall Street Journal quotes Ai's lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan decrying the blackout of news about the arrest. "Ai Weiwei has been taken away, and his studio has been searched," Liu wrote. "Whether Ai Weiwei is right or wrong, this is still really big news, a really hot topic. I never thought, never thought, that the domestic media would actually lose the power of speech, and act both deaf and dumb. Sad, really sad."