World-renowned artist Ai Weiwei was arrested in April by Chinese authorities and detained for 81 days, at a time when dozens of activists, lawyers and dissidents were arrested earlier this year. An international outcry arose over the imprisonment of Ai, who had long been a outspoken critic of human rights abuses in China. Chinese authorities charged Ai with economic crimes and released him “because of his good attitude in confessing” and a chronic illness, says the Guardian.
One of the conditions of Ai’s release was not to speak publicly about being detained; he was banned from using Twitter. But Ai has already sent a number of angry tweets recently about friends who had been involved in his case. He has also written an article about Beijing on the website of Newsweek magazine that describes a city in which government officials and businessmen live very, very well while migrant workers from villages who’ve “never seen electricity or toilet paper” toil as “Beijing’s slaves.”
Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants’ schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don’t have any money, they pull the stitches out. It’s a city of violence.
The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system. Without trust, you cannot identify anything; it’s like a sandstorm. You don’t see yourself as part of the city—there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.
Ai refers directly to his detainment as an “ordeal” that made him understand what Beijing is, a “nightmare.” Forget about the glossy images of bullet trains and BMWs:
… there are many hidden spots where they put people without identity. With no name, just a number. They don’t care where you go, what crime you committed. They see you or they don’t see you, it doesn’t make the slightest difference. There are thousands of spots like that. Only your family is crying out that you’re missing. But you can’t get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation. My wife has been writing these kinds of petitions every day, making phone calls to the police station every day. Where is my husband? Just tell me where my husband is. There is no paper, no information.
According to various accounts, after being detained and fitted with a black hood, he was driven to a secluded location where he was watched twenty-four hours a day by shifts of two uniformed military police sergeants, who stayed less than three feet from his side, sometimes inches away, while he slept, showered, and used the bathroom. They reportedly required that he sleep with his hands in view, on top of his blanket. “It is designed as a kind of mental torture, and it works well,” Ai told the Times.
While Ai has been charged with tax evasion, a Reuters interview with one of his associates makes it clear that Chinese authorities were more than concerned about Ai’s criticism of the government and human rights abuses:
While he was held, the source said, Ai was asked whether he knew who the organisers of the “Jasmine” protests were. Ai denied all knowledge, the source said. Police officers discussed the contents of his blog and Twitter account, “line by line,” the source said.
He was told he could face 10 years in prison for “inciting subversion to state power”—a broad charge that China often uses to punish dissidents….
Police officers told Ai “you criticised the government, so we are going to let all society know that you’re an obscene person, you evaded taxes, you have two wives, we want to shame you. We’ll not use politics to deal with you,” the source said.
The source said Ai told them “no one is going to believe you,” but officers told him “everyone will believe us, tax evasion is a very serious crime in many countries.”
Osnos also says that, according to one source, Ai told the authorities, “talk about illegality, there’s no difference between the country that we are in now and the time of the Cultural Revolution.”
I’m amazed that Ai was even able to publish his essay in Newsweek. What will the Chinese government do now? If they detain him again, the whole world really is watching. Detention and psychological torture have not cowed him into silence; if anything, he is telling a harsher truth about China than before. For all its economic progress, in too many ways, little has changed in China since the horrific days of the Cultural Revolution.
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Photo of Ai WeiWei after his release by Chinese authorities by DigiPub