Ai Weiwei's Supporters Hit a Wall as China Denounces Western Meddling: A Roundup of Latest Developments

Ai Weiwei's Supporters Hit a Wall as China Denounces Western Meddling: A Roundup of Latest Developments

Days after Ai Weiwei was detained by Chinese authorities, his family still has no concrete idea of his whereabouts, but the outrage generated by the incident continues to have ripple effects throughout the world. Ai's friend Wen Tao also remains unaccounted for after police rounded up the artist's associates. Here, ARTINFO gathers some of the most important developments:


Diplomatic Outcry Intensifies to Little Avail: Bloomberg reports that German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle summoned Chinese ambassador Wu Hongbo to discuss the artist's situation. "We are very worried about the continuing detention of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei," Westerwelle said in a statement on the foreign ministry's Web site. Outgoing U.S ambassador Jon Huntsman said in a speech in Shanghai that future ambassadors "will continue to speak up in defense of social activists, like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times." Despite the diplomatic posturing, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch was quoted in the Telegraph calling the response of Western governments "toothless."


Chinese Government Acknowledges Detention: China's foreign ministry has now officially addressed the issue, acknowledging that Ai Weiwei has indeed been detained. Spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference that it was his understanding "that the public security authorities are investigating Ai Weiwei according to law on suspicion of economic crimes." He also challenged the Western response, insisting, "This has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression." This is the first official reaction to give a sense of what is in store. News service Xinhua had posted a one-line statement yesterday that Ai was being investigated for "economic crimes" — but it was taken down almost immediately.


State-Run Paper Condemns Ai: The first official Chinese reaction came from a (seemingly poorly translated) piece in the state-controlled paper the Global Times. As a window into official thinking, it makes for a chilling read. The editorial denounced Western government reactions as hypocritical attempts to "modify the value system of the Chinese people." With regard to Ai Weiwei himself, it notes, "As a maverick of Chinese society, he likes 'surprising speech' and 'surprising behavior.' He also likes to do something ambiguous in law." It then added that, "On April 1, he went to Taiwan via Hong Kong. But it was reported his departure procedures were incomplete" — a strange accusation, since he was actually detained on Sunday the 3rd, and having incomplete "departure procedures" is not convincing as a reason for multi-day detention. The piece concludes that "the law will not concede before 'mavericks' just because of the Western media's criticism.... He will pay a price for his special choice." 

"Absurd" Charges: Ai's family and supporters are not buying the accusations. "The economic crimes report is absurd, because the way he was taken and then disappeared shows it's nothing of the sort," Ai's older sister, Gao Ge, told Reuters. "This is more like a crime gang's behavior than a country with laws." 

Ai Weiwei's Wife Pleads for Information: Today, Ai's wife Lu Qing has petitioned the police to know her husband's whereabouts and condition and why he was being held: "As of 8 am today, it has been 96 hours since Ai Weiwei was taken away from Beijing airport, and I haven't heard a single word about him," she writes in her appeal. Meanwhile, faced with no news from officials, the artist's family has resorted to posting a heartbreaking "Missing Person" flier in Beijing, signed by his mother and sister. The New Yorker has a translation of the text: "Ai Weiwei, male, 53 years old. On April 3, 2011 around 8:30, at Beijing Capital International Airport, before boarding a flight to Hong Kong, he was taken away by three men. More than fifty hours later, present whereabouts remains unknown. Please, anyone who knows the whereabouts of the above, contact the family." The image of the flier has been censored online inside of China.

He May Face Prison Time: In the same article, the New Yorker's Evan Osnos talks to NYU professor Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law, to get some perspective on what may lay in store for the artist. "Although the Criminal Procedure Law in most cases gives the police only three days to hold someone before deciding whether to release him or apply to the prosecutors for an arrest warrant, exceptions allow them up to seven days and in very limited circumstances up to thirty days," Cohen writes. "Invariably the police turn the exceptions into a thirty-day rule, so nothing may be heard from them or Weiwei for a month. The prosecutors have seven days to decide whether to approve the arrest request, and usually do approve arrest and continuing detention. Approval of arrest usually guarantees later indictment, conviction and punishment, usually prison time."

Investigation of Ai Broadens: According to the UK Telegraph, on Tuesday, Chinese police called more people in for questioning, expanding their investigation. Documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman — who has been working with Ai and was interviewed by ARTINFO about his situation — said police appeared to be systematically questioning people associated with the artist. Bloomberg cites a report in Radio Television Hong Kong that police had taken away more employees at Ai's Beijing workshop for questioning, though how many were involved was not clear. 

Pro-Ai Petitions and Street Art Circulate: Meanwhile, multiple online appeals have begun to circulate for his release, including one just launched by Bianca Jagger. A London-based petition letter is gathering pace with more than 500 signatories from the arts community. It is expected to be published in the Guardian tomorrow. In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, an Ai Weiwei street art graphic features the artist's face, with the caption asking the question, "Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?"