The arrest and disappearance of Ai Weiwei (left), China’s most famous modern artist and a vocal critic of the Communist authorities, marks a new and more sinister phase in the regime’s repression of dissident voices.
Dozens of democracy advocates, lawyers, intellectuals and dissidents have been detained, disappeared and placed under house arrest or surveillance since calls for a Jasmine Revolution began circulating online.
The current crackdown is especially troubling, activists suggest, because the regime is making no pretence at abiding by legal norms.
“So many people are just disappearing,” Rosenzweig said. “That suggests a willingness to sacrifice the rule of law and legal procedure in the name of stability.”
The government’s determination to pre-empt any challenge to its authority threatens the albeit-precarious and often-arbitrary rule of law that has underpinned China’s economic success, some analysts suggest.
“There is more playing out here than a simple contrast between free speech and totalitarian one-party rule,” writes Stanley Lubman, a specialist on Chinese law at the University of California, Berkeley. “Nothing less than the future direction and content of legal development is at stake.”
The UK, France, Germany and the US today called for Ai’s immediate release.
“The detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei is inconsistent with the fundamental freedom and human rights of all Chinese citizens,” said a State Department spokesman. “We urge the Chinese government to release him immediately.”
The latest arrests reflect a shift in state-society relations, activists believe, as the Communist authorities attempt to reassert control over an increasingly autonomous and assertive civil society.
“What we are seeing now is an attempt by the government to roll back the idea of universal values,” says Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin.
“More than the periodic crackdown that we’ve been witnessing in China for the past twenty years, this one is more fundamental,” he said. “It’s a readjustment between the real nature of the regime – a one-party state – and the reality of Chinese society, which has developed many fields where expression is out of the control of the state.”
Ai’s arrest is especially ominous because regime has previously tolerated individual expressions of dissent and targeted activists who attempted to organize or act collectively.
“It’s an attempt to redefine the limits of what kind of criticism is tolerable,” said Bequelin. “The government is moving the goalposts and a lot of people are finding themselves targeted.”
The Communist authorities clearly intend the detention of such an internationally-renowned figure as Ai to be seen as a calculated threat to less celebrated activists.
“By going after Ai Weiwei, the message is very clear,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director.
“Even somebody that well known and that well connected, is not immune,” he said. “If Ai Weiwei can be picked up like this there’s really no hope for some of the grassroots activists that we have seen coming under significant pressure in the last few months.”
The regime’s efforts to stifle civil society and constrict political space are being extended to a wide range of advocacy groups, including service NGOs that have largely refrained from oppositional or dissident activity.
The authorities recently announced the closure of Aizhi.net the website of the Aizhixing Research Foundation, a leading AIDS rights group. The group’s founder, Wan Yanhai, was informed by e-mail that it had been shuttered for publishing censored news. Wan, an exiled democracy advocate, was recently a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.