5 Apr 2011

International outcry over China’s detention of Ai Weiwei

Global political figures join widespread condemnation of the detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei in Beijing with his whereabouts still unknown.

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei still detained in China (reuters)

Groundbreaking Chinese artist Ai WeiWei was detained by Chinese officials at Beijing airport on Sunday and has been uncontactable since. Following his arrest there has been an international outcry and widespread calls to see the artist and activist released.

The British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday: “I call on the Chinese government to urgently clarify Ai’s situation and wellbeing, and hope he will be released immediately.

His concerns were echoed by the US State Department: “We obviously continue to be deeply concerned by the trend of forced disappearances, extra-legal detentions, arrests and convictions of human rights activists for exercising their internationally-recognised human right for freedom of expression.”

As well as further statements of concern from the EU delegation to China, and from officials in France and Germany, there has been widespread condemnation from the human rights sector and the art world.

The artist’s studio has been cleared of documents and computers and Mr Weiwei’s wife, Lu Qing, is concerned for her husband’s welfare after his latest clash with Chinese officials: “This time it’s extremely serious. They searched his studio and took disks and hard drives and all kinds of stuff, but the police haven’t told us where he is or what they’re after. There’s no information about him.”

“If the authorities are so bold as to grab this world-renowned artist in broad daylight at Beijing airport, it’s frightening to think how they might treat other, lesser-known dissidents.” Donna Guest, Amnesty International

Amnesty International‘s Donna Guest said of the artist’s detention: “Ai Weiwei was not even involved in any call for ‘Jasmine’ protests. There seems to be no reason whatsoever for his detention, other than that the authorities are trying to broadcast the message that China’s time for open dissent has come to an end.

“If the authorities are so bold as to grab this world-renowned artist in broad daylight at Beijing airport, it’s frightening to think how they might treat other, lesser-known dissidents.”

Calls for information about the artist’s whereabouts have been met with denial or ignorance from Chinese figures and organisations. No comments have been issued by the Taihu detention centre where it is suspected he is being held, nor from the Songzhuang police station from where the officers who detained Ai Weiwei were based.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, claimed that all Chinese citizens have basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, but asserted that citizens exercising these rights “should not bring harm to the public interest”.

The artistic fraternity in the UK has condemned the detainment of Ai Weiwei. Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor joined Tate director Nicholas Serota and representatives of Somerset House on Monday calling for the immediate release of the artist.

The Lisson Gallery, who represent the artist in the UK, told Channel 4 News: “Ai Weiwei is one of the leading cultural figures of his generation and consistently displays great courage in placing himself at risk to affect social change through his art. He serves as an example for legitimate social criticism and free expression both in China and internationally.”

Ai Weiwei in conversation with Channel 4 News

Ai Weiwei spoke to Channel 4 News last October on the detainment and disappearances of individuals in China. At the time he was confident that he could continue to criticise the regime in China and avoid being arrested by Chinese police: "I don't think the government will want more of this embarressment [from detentions].

Just a month later he was put under house arrest. Following this he spoke at length to Channel 4 News about how he was detained by official government forces.

Both of these interviews can be viewed below: