Tax evader Ai Weiwei released on bail

[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.)

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Update: Global Times and Ai Weiwei

Five full days after my post on Ai Weiwei and the Global Times was published, I received an email from someone relatively high up at the paper telling me that my description of the meeting with Mr. Hu and the staff as depicted in the post was categorically untrue. I’m putting this post up because I want the newspaper’s response to be on the record.

I can say definitively that the lower portion of the post, in which I describe my conversation with a GT editor, is true because I was there having the conversation. I cannot say definitively that the episode involving Mr. Hu is true, as I wasn’t there, obviously. But I can say that I heard about it from sources I trust like brothers/sisters. I was told that throughout the day, after the meeting, the office was buzzing about Mr. Hu’s announcement.

That said, it is still hearsay. A former journalist, I used trusted sources and thought long and hard about putting up the post to begin with. I wasn’t there. Maybe the meeting was perceived differently by different attendees. Maybe the story I heard was exaggerated, or maybe it was totally accurate. I definitely believe that the story, or at least the gist of it, is true, but I also have to offer the other side of the story.

In spite of my frustrations with the direction the Global Times has taken, underscored by the recent Ai Weiwei editorials, I still have great respect for many who work there, and good memories of our working together. The higher-level person who contacted me and insisted the story is false is one of those people I deeply respect.

So there’s both sides. I wanted to put it all on the table and let readers know how the paper responded.

As I said, it was five full days before the paper contacted me. The entry was translated into Chinese the very day it posted and got a fair amount of distribution. If it were categorically false I wish they had contacted me on day one, when they first read it.

Apologies for a long and possibly ambiguous post. I hope it’s clear why I felt I had to write it.

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The Global Times and Ai Weiwei

Note: The Global Times has expressed a different opinion about what happened. Please see this post and the ensuing comments.

Nine days ago, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of The Global Times, assembled all of the Chinese staff into the paper’s large conference room and shut the door. As is nearly always the case with such meetings, the expats, known as “foreign experts,” were not permitted inside.

Hu had a direct and simple order for his shock troops staff: They were to go to their desks and seek out any Chinese comment threads, any discussions on Chinese BBS’s and portals and blogs — any discussion on the Internet at all — about the detention of Ai Weiwei and counter them with the party line, as expressed so clearly and ominously in a recent Global Times editorial, namely that Ai Weiwei is a self-appointed maverick who deserves to be detained, and who is being used by hostile Western powers to embarrass, hurt and destabilize China. This was not a request, it was a direct order. It was compulsory.

This tells us quite clearly how determined the party is to get its message out about Ai Weiwei, even if it’s in gross violation of journalist ethics, if not downright sleazy. It adds a whole new dimension to the concept of the 50-center.

I’ve avoided Ai Weiwei, mainly because I’m on vacation and my Internet connections have been remarkably dodgy, which I attribute to Ai Weiwei, or at least to what he stands for. The CCP has to stifle voices of dissent when it feels vulnerable, and the Internet is always the first place they clamp down.

I’m sitting in a hotel in Nanjing and will try to make this a brief post, although I am brimming with thoughts on the topic.

The Global Times showed its truest and most sinister colors with a now infamous editorial warning that Ai Weiwei was about to hit a “red line,” and if//when he does he is asking for trouble. This was a not-so-veiled threat to all Chinese activists. The CCP is on the march, my friends. They’re kicking butt and taking names, and they’re coming for you.

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.

The West ignored the complexity of China’s running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei’s individual behavior. They simply described it as China’s “human rights suppression.” “Human rights” have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world.

This is disturbing on so many levels I don’t think I need to drill down. It speaks for itself. It’s nauseating.

Instead, I’d like to talk about a meeting i had with a senior editor of the GT just 48 hours ago. She is urbane, sophisticated, educated, talented and a truly wonderful person. She also epitomizes the archetype of the sophisticated, urbane, educated Chinese who insist on toeing the Party line at all costs. I believe — I know — that this is completely sincere. But it’s also quite frustrating. “Getting through” to such a person, especially when it’s a good friend you admire, is infinitely frustrating when they seem to put up seamless, airtight mental barriers that you simply cannot break through.

I paraphrase, but with accuracy:

“Why doesn’t the West see that we do things our way in China? We have 1.3 billion people, all those mouths to feed and to protect through a harmonious society. You don’t have this situation. You are developed and your populations are small. Human rights doesn’t mean to the West what it means in China. Most Chinese support Ai Weiwei’s detention. They support Liu Xiaobo’s detention. He is a criminal trying to impose Western-style government on a society that doesn’t want it. Why won’t the West understand how humiliating it was to award the Nobel Prize to someone we put in jail, a man who is a criminal to the Chinese? How should we feel? How should we react?”

This led to a very long conversation — over an hour — in which I explained that if only China would actually engage in a dialog about these issues with the outside world instead of sabre-rattling and always sounding like a misunderstood and petulant child, maybe then China would advance its cause and help people outside China understand what China is really all about, how human rights are seen through Chinese eyes.

I specifically pointed to the Ai Weiwei editiorial.

“Don’t you realize the entire expat community here in Beijing and many others around the world are buzzing about this editorial, shocked at its belligerence, its snide and strident tone, its implied threats and its undercurrent of violence? Maybe, as you keep saying, the West truly doesn’t understand China. Well, you are focusing now on soft power. The Global Times itself is actually an outgrowth of China’s thirst for soft power, for global reputation and respect. And look at how you’re failing. You are driving away foreign talent and making China look worse, not better — in precise contradiction to the paper’s stated goals. If your media and leaders could articulate China’s point of view as clearly and calmly as you just did in this conversation maybe then China could get somewhere in fostering understanding. But railing against Ai Weiwei at the top of your lungs — a man seen as an artist and a celebrity — is exactly what you should not be doing. Why not throw the West a bone and let him go, declare an amnesty and then explain why he was detained in the first place.”

This evoked quite a response.

“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?”

I said it’s been done before (look at North Korea surrendering reporter “spies” after Bill Clinton paid them a visit). In an instant, it would force a new dimension to the issue, and show China was willing to be less hysterical. And I said China appears hysterical, becoming increasingly strident, and that nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the direction the Global Times is taking.

This was, as I said, a long, polite and serious discussion. I never experienced anything quite like it before, because despite the mental barriers I referred, to, she genuinely wanted to hear my opinion and to learn how the West sees China, and I think she actually “got” that the GT, even if they’re right, is scaring people away and damaging its own cause with readers who are not Chinese. She actually said she wanted to discuss my argument with her superiors. (And no, I am not so vain or arrogant or naive as to believe my little talk will change the shape of Chinese journalism.)

All of this said, the detention of Ai Weiwei and many other activists who have the misfortune of being nameless and faceless to us is unpardonable, and self-defeating. I know, they were sending a message to the people of China, not to Americans 10,000 miles away. But again, they say they want soft power, they say they want to be a global superpower, they say they want fair treatment in the media. Well, sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t repress with one hand and paint a picture of a happy harmonious rules-following society with the other. Detaining Ai Weiwei was the worst thing you could have done, trumped only by your idiocy in attacking him in savage, ugly, deranged editorials.

Go out and do your thing, Global Times 50-centers. While a lot of people will be fooled, enough will see through the propaganda. I admire the young aspiring journalists I worked with there two years ago. If any of you are reading this (which is not very likely), I urge you to think for yourselves, and understand that while journalists have several roles, astroturfing message boards isn’t one of them.

I am delighted to read that the GT editorial has sparked “scorn and ridicule” among much of China’s Twitterati and social media users. I am glad to make my small contribution to this much-deserved scorn and ridicule.

Update: Be sure to see Lisa’s post that has a lot to say on this topic. And sorry for all the typos in the first version of this post. I never wrote a post this fast.

Update 2: Please be sure to see James Fallows’ new post on this topic, which kindly cites my own post.

Looks like my post has been translated into Chinese.

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