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Chinese Crackdown: Ai Weiwei Detained, Studio Raided

Taken into Custody: Ai Weiwei

[UPDATE on this story, here.]

Over the last few weeks, Chinese authorities have seemed determined not to let the viral popular uprisings that have transformed politics in the Middle East spread to China. As I read recent reports of actions taken against Chinese dissidents, it seemed to me chillingly likely that the crackdown might eventually waylay Ai Weiwei, the internationally prominent Chinese dissident artist .

Now this has apparently happened.

Ai, who has repeatedly skirmished with Chinese authorities but managed to continue his provocative challenges to the status quo, was taken into custody today as he attempted to board a plane to Hong Kong (en route to Taiwan).

It gets worse.

Keith Richburg of the Washington Post reports:

Police detained Ai on Sunday morning, and his assistants and attorneys said they were concerned that they have not had any communication with him since. After his arrest, police blocked off the streets to his studio and raided it, carting away laptops and the hard drive from the main computer, Ai’s workers said.

They said eight staff members and Ai’s wife, Lu Qing, were taken to the local police station for questioning. Even as night fell, Lu and two staffers were still being held, they said.

Richburg also reports that “in March, Ai announced that he was opening a studio in Berlin to escape the restraints on artistic freedom in China.”

Speaking of Berlin, a major loan exhibition, The Art of Enlightenment, with almost 600 European 18th-century works drawn from the collections of three German museums (Staatliche Museen, Berlin; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden; Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich), opened Saturday for a year-long run at the National Museum of China, Beijing, “as part of a Sino-German agreement signed last year,” as reported by TimeOut Beijing.

The Germans may be uniquely well situated to advocate on Ai’s behalf (which is not to say that other countries, including the U.S., should refrain from exerting their influence). The German-language newspaper Berliner Zeitung had expressed the hope last Tuesday that the crackdown on dissidents would be a “key theme” explored by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle during his visit this weekend in Beijing, which was pegged to the exhibition’s opening. The cultural pomp and ceremony on Friday were in stark contrast to the sordid happenings two days later at Bejing’s airport and Ai’s studio.

Guido Westerwelle, German Foreign Minister, and Liu Yandong, State Councillor of Culture for the People’s Republic of China, at Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for “The Art of the Enlightenment,” National Museum of China, Beijing
Photo: Frank Barbian,
© Staatliche Museen

The brochure for “Enlightenment” states:

The idea that art can change people and society became the guiding tenet of an entire epoch.

Maybe this transformative power of art can work its magic yet again. (More likely, though, what’s needed is some pointed and forceful diplomacy.)

A painting from the “Art of Enlightenment” show: Johann Eleazar Zeissig, known as Schenau, “The Discussion on Art” (detail), 1772
Photo: Elke Estel, Hans-Peter Klut
, ©Staatliche Kunstsammlungen

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