This week Frontline aired an in-depth look at Chinese artist/dissident (or perhaps dissident/artist) Ai Weiwei. The full episode entitled “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei” is available online here along with a profile of his online activism here.
If you aren’t familiar with Ai Weiwei, it’s time for your formal introduction.
Ai Weiwei first caught my eye a few years ago when he championed a movement for a complete name list of those who died in the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008. It is believed the gov’t set an “official” number of causalities from the earthquake very shortly after the event, and never revised the number.
Thousands of children died in school buildings that had been poorly constructed (Ai Weiwei estimates more than 5,000). These buildings collapsed because they were built with inferior materials in order to allow large amounts of graft.
Another activist was arrested and sentenced to 5 years for subverting state power when he released information about these buildings. (You can read more about his actions here, which includes a partial name list of the children who died).
Ai Weiwei headed to Chengdu to press for this activist’s release. While he was there police broke into his hotel room and beat him. A video documenting the beating and the events regarding the gov’t cover up in Sichuan is available with translations. The footage is stark and shows a little too clearly how activists in China are repressed.
Earlier this year Ai Weiwei again made international headlines when authorities in Shanghai condemned his art studio. His response was to throw a massive party before the demolition at which the main dish was to be river crabs. As you might remember from my post that covered Chinese internet creatures, “river crab” sounds like “harmony” in Chinese, and represents gov’t censorship.
The Beijing police did not allow him to leave his to attend his own party. Being on house arrest, or being tailed by police is fairly typical for Ai Weiwei. He was arrested more than 22 times in 2009 alone.
UPDATE: Sunday Morning Beijing time, Ai Weiwei is detained at the Beijing airport by police. He has now been unreachable for almost 12 hours. His studio is surrounded by police and several of his friends have been arrested as well.
UPDATE 4/6/2011: Three days and still no word from Ai Weiwei. It is starting to seem as if he has finally crossed the line and will be charged with subverting state power, which would likely be a 5-10 year prison term.
Update 5/12/2011: Ai Weiwei is still missing, and the government has yet to charge him with any crime. On this anniversary of the tragedy that he devoted so much of his efforts to, his silence today is saddening.