[Note: Whatever you do, don't miss Math's classic comment to this post.]
As you all know by now, Ai Weiwei is out on bail and has confessed to the crime of tax evasion (the usual charge against dissidents). I heard him interviewed by the BBC today, and all he could say, sheepishly, is that he’s home now and cannot comment on anything. Released, despite what my friend from the Global times told me eight weeks ago:
“Let Ai Weiwei go? But Richard, how can we do that? How can China admit to the world it is being defeated, it is bowing to international pressure and not doing what is right for China? How can we humilate ourselves like that?”
Well, apparently China has bitten the bullet and humiliated itself. Maybe global outrage really can work, at least in high-profile cases like this. To me, this biting of the bullet makes China look better, at least a little bit, than if they’d kept Ai Weiwei hidden away under lock and key. It is less humiliating for China than appearing weak and terrified by an activist artist. From today’s NY Times:
The release of Mr. Ai, 54, who is widely known and admired outside China, appeared to be a rare example in recent years of China’s bowing to international pressure on human rights. Mr. Ai was the most prominent of hundreds of people detained since China intensified a broad crackdown on critics of the government in February, when anonymous calls for mass protests modeled after the revolutions in the Middle East percolated on the Chinese Internet.
China’s move to douse any flicker of dissent was the harshest in many years outside restive ethnic regions in the far west, and the vast majority of those detained in the crackdown were, like Mr. Ai, held in secret locations for weeks with no legal justification.
Chinese officials announced in May that the authorities were investigating Mr. Ai on suspicion of tax evasion, after police officers took him from the main Beijing airport on April 3 as Mr. Ai prepared to board a flight to Hong Kong. Supporters of Mr. Ai said the tax inquiry was a pretext to silence one of the most vocal critics of the Chinese Communist Party.
Right, they arrested him and held him in a secret location for three months because he evaded taxes. The tax evasion thingy is kind of droll, considering China’s hyperbolic response 8 weeks ago to the international outrage over Ai’s disappearance. Remember the Global Times rant in response to the international outcry? [Update: Wow, it looks like this link has gone dead! Wonder why.]
It is reckless collision against China’s basic political framework and ignorance of China’s judicial sovereignty to exaggerate a specific case in China and attack China with fierce comments before finding out the truth. The West’s behavior aims at disrupting the attention of Chinese society and attempts to modify the value system of the Chinese people.
Ai Weiwei likes to do something “others dare not do.” He has been close to the red line of Chinese law. Objectively speaking, Chinese society does not have much experience in dealing with such persons. However, as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.
Tax evasion indeed. I am thrilled he has been released. Let’s not forget, however, that there’s a long list of other less high-profile “tax evaders” who remain in custody.
Amnesty International is calling for the immediate release of Ai Weiwei’s four associates Wen Tao, Hu Mingfen, Liu Zhenggang and Zhang Jinsong, who all disappeared into secret detention after Ai was detained.
Ai Weiwei is one of over 130 activists, lawyers, bloggers and tweeters detained since February in a sweeping crackdown on dissent prompted by government fears of a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ inspired by the Middle East and North Africa.
Let’s hope the CCP’s sweet forbearance and beneficence continue, and that the rest of the detainees are soon freed. (And no, I’m not recommending you hold your breath.)
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.