Friday 5 November 2010

Ai Weiwei under house arrest

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been the talk of the season in London with his 100 million sunflower seed exhibition at Tate Modern. According to posts on the artist's twitter account (@aiww), and from other Chinese human rights activists this morning, he is now under house arrest. (The reports do not yet seem to have been confirmed by international media outlets).

He had responded sardonically to news this week that his new studio was to be demolished by the authorities, who have cited planning permission issues for this move against the internationally celebrated artist.

Ai Weiwei has always had a difficult relationship with the authorities, owing to his outspoken social activism against corruption, such as compiling a list of over 5000 students who had died in the collapse of a school building after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He needed brain surgery for internal bleeding after being badly beaten up last year in the wake of this controversy.

The latest moves against the artist would seem to suggest either a tin ear over public relations and international reputation from the Chinese authorities, or perhaps a deliberate show of power to demonstrate that no public voice - however internationally feted - will be considered beyond the repressive reach of the state.

Western governments have been fairly muted in their routine challenges to China over human rights, following strategies of constructive engagement with the emerging global power, and aware that even mild diplomatic challenges will often invoke a highly assertive response.

This move against Ai Weiwei will surely spark a wave of civic protest internationally. It should also provide a broader opportunity to highlight what internal debates within China about its future path - between authoritarians, reformists and others - mean for China's citizens, particularly those seeking to build on recent small but positive steps towards greater criticial scrutiny and freedom of expression, or whether these opportunities are now again being closed down.

The strategic challenge is to identify what those outside China can do to best show effective solidarity with those working for progress towards human rights in their own country, the world's emerging authoritarian superpower.

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