Ai Weiwei is Not Free – What we learned about China from his imprisonment

It’s very tempting at this moment to celebrate the release of Ai Weiwei, but the current situation is a painful reminder of just how far China has left to go before it actually respects Human Rights.

The lead story today is that Ai Weiwei was released from prison on bail after confessing to his economic crimes (tax evasion). He has agreed to pay his fines, and is out because of good behavior in confessing and because of a chronic illness. Other sources add that this is partially in response to international calls for his release.

Today, we’ll be picking this apart.

It is wrong to say that Ai Weiwei is free. In the next few months there is a good chance that he will be arrested again, and at the very least will be indefinitely on house arrest. His “freedom” comes at a tremendous price for him and his family. Just last week the New York Times covered a story about another activist who had been severely beaten while under house arrest. Even after the activist was sent to prison his family has been continuously harassed, being forced to move out of Beijing, and being unable to find a company willing to hire his wife.

Freedom is much more than the absence of a jail cell. Ai Weiwei’s home will become his new prison. It is known that in house arrests security cameras are installed, sheets of metal are placed over the windows, guards are stationed nearby to monitor the house and its residents at all times and all communication and news sources are cut off. As long as he stays in China, I doubt that he will ever be allowed to return to his infamous twitter account, or even comment on the situation in China (we might see some forced art though).

It is a small comfort to know at least to know where Ai Weiwei is. For nearly three months after he was arrested in the Beijing airport, no one knew where he was being held. After his wife’s visit with him a few weeks ago, it was made clear that the location was not an official prison.

Ai Weiwei has been charged with evading taxes, and destroying financial documents, which is very convenient given that there is no evidence. They do however have his confession. As forced confessions are still admissible in Chinese courts (they are “working” on that), it is highly likely that he was tortured in someway to extract those confessions. In the future, when they arrest him again for questioning their rule, they will remind the Chinese people that he is nothing more than a common criminal (this is what they did to Liu Xiaobo).

Today is also not a turning point for China’s human rights situation. There are still more than 130 Chinese activists currently sitting in Chinese “prisons” (as I’m writing this article, journalists are trying to confirm that Xu Zhiyong has been taken). Many have been charged with “subverting state power“, people like Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. A typical sentence for questioning the Party’s rule is more than 10 years, while the maximum sentence for child molestation is 5 years.

I think it is also incredibly important to debunk this claim that international pressure had anything to do with his release on bail. China showed the world that it did not care what people in other countries think when they arrested him. Human rights groups are making this claim because they want people to feel like their actions helped insure his release. I’m not saying that these actions served no purpose, they helped create a greater understand abroad of the situation here, but that they did not influence the gov’t. To make this point perfectly clear, in 4 days Hu Jintao will be meeting with the leader of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, who is wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court. If they are willing to meet with him after all of the actions taken to bring light to what happened in Darfur, why would they care what you think about the disappearance of one Chinese artist?

Ultimately what has happened is a net gain for the Chinese gov’t. They have silenced Ai Weiwei, and they can now dodge criticisms from abroad. We must continue to put pressure on China until there is actual, meaningful change in how they approach human rights.

further reading about Ai’s current situation can be followed on China Digital Times.

Finally I would like to wrap up with a few quotes from the man the party fears so much (all of these are from here):

“Grabbing a rapist was labelled anti-China, questioning shoddy constructions which caused the loss of children was labelled anti-China, exposing contaminated food was labelled anti-China, revealing whatever chaos was labelled anti-China. Child trafficking, HIV-positive blood donation, sweatshop coal mines, law-enforcement agencies violating laws, fake news, corruption, unconstitutionality, green dam censorship system, so long as revealing these issues were labelled anti-China. Are you a human being if you are not anti-China?”

“Overturning police cars is a super-tough workout physically. I enjoy this sport event which probably is the only sport event I like, and I will definitely participate in it.”

” In this country, tyranny deprives not only ordinary people of their rights to life, but also their rights to express their opinions, including the right to question, the right to inquire and the right to know. All the efforts to acquire the rights have been destroyed by the authorities at all costs. People who died of tyranny had no place to be buried.”

“What can they do to me? None other than deportation, kidnapping and imprisonment of me or make me completely vanish. They don’t feature imagination and creativity, and they are lack of happiness and the capability to soar up into the sky, what a pathetic political group.”

“Everyone ignores me from now on, and they are not concerned about what I’ve said as well as my plight. Unfortunately, my plight is also the plight of China.”

16 responses to “Ai Weiwei is Not Free – What we learned about China from his imprisonment”

  1. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

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  2. Chopstik says:

    While we might argue that “free” is relative, you bring up some very good points. You also neglected to mention (or I read past it) that three of his associates are still thought to be imprisoned and likely will not have the same support for their release as Ai Weiwei.

    This is just another cycle in the openness and subsequent repression that have existed for much of the last 90 years. Sad…

    • Tom says:

      very sad indeed. China is very skilled at creating these PR moments that don’t really celebrate anything. Why should we praise China for the release of a person who never should have been arrested?

  3. AllanF says:

    Also i don’t think it is mere chance that this coincides with Wen Jiaobao’s visit to Germany and the UK. Two countries where Ai Weiwei has strong support.

    Perhaps this is one of the “beauties” of the system where it is standard practice to evade paying taxes and for this to be common knowledge. So when push comes to shove the government can call in the “crime”.

    • Tom says:

      excellent point, Angela Merkel is now required to pat Wen Jaibao on the back for setting him free, which China will use later to show that it is improving it’s human rights situation.

  4. Charlie says:

    Fantastic post.

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Watching Al Jazeera today, I saw Ai Wei Wei’s release. Standing outside his fortress looking hoime, he appeared to have lost much weight and seemed almost scared. He’s had a very difficult imprisonment, no doubt about that. Al Jazeera reported that there is no news about his driver and his accountant. They are still in prison. By the way, the Al Jazeera reporter was speaking from a very polluted looking Beijing – the smog behind him was incredible! Great post Tom. Today I am NOT a China lover!!

    • Tom says:

      I understand what you mean when you say, “Today I am NOT a China lover,” but to those who don’t know you as well, Meryl means that today she is disappointed that the party chooses to continue to harass dissidents. This feeling though I think is caused by loving the people of this country, and hoping that someday they will have more freedom.

      • Chopstik says:

        This does bring up an interesting facet of how we view China (or any other country, for that matter – though I find China to be a particularly interesting case). In the West, we can easily say we love our country (the US, for example) while not particularly liking the government or the party in power and there is a clear distinction between the two. In China, that distinction is not so clear and saying that we don’t love China today – while the speaker may mean the Chinese government, it is often taken as an affront to the entire Chinese nation. This is due in large part to the efforts of the Party which have worked very hard (and to obvious success) to ensure that Party = China in the minds of its citizens and others.

        I may have to think a little on this topic and maybe address it in a little more depth if I can later… Hmmm…

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Thank you for clarifying my point, Tom and Mr Kuaizi!! Here in the UK, we often complain about our Government but most of us enjoy being British. I remember how shocked my Chinese friends were when I told them about protesters throwing coloured powder at the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. “What happened to them?” they asked me. “Nothing” I replied. Nobody was hurt. This happened when Tony Blair was speaking in our Houses of Parliament, so the moment was captured live on BBC TV. The protesters, from an organisation called “Freedom for Fathers”, were highlighting the plight of fathers separated from their children, due to divorce. Since this incident, a window has been installed in the public gallery at the House to prevent future speakers being showered from above! It’s easy to be brave when Human Rights allows every kind of opinion to be freely expressed.

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