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Ai arrest highlights China's crackdown

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
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Revered Chinese artist branded criminal
  • Ai has not been heard from since his detention on April 3 at Beijing airport
  • Ai, one of China's best-known artists, helped design Bird's Nest stadium for Olympics
  • He later called for a boycott of the Games, saying the event was used as propaganda
  • Government says Ai is under investigation on suspicion for economic crimes

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- Week by week, China is tightening its grip on dissent.

From political activism to the internet, media to the arts, the Chinese government is silencing citizens who dare challenge its rule.

The latest victim: Ai Weiwei, 53, one of China's most prominent avant-garde artists and human rights activists. Ai was detained at the Beijing airport on April 3 on his way to Hong Kong. He has not been heard from since.

"I have no idea where he is, why he was taken away, where he is kept now," said Gao Ying, Ai's mother, in a phone interview with CNN five days after Ai's disappearance. "I am very worried about him. He is very stubborn. He won't change his attitude."

Ai, one of the country's best-known artists, helped design the iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics. Later, however, he called for a boycott of the 2008 Games because he said China was using the showcase event as propaganda.

Since then, the burly and brash artist has used art and social networking to ridicule government policies. He organized hundreds of volunteers to investigate the deaths of schoolchildren in school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai later published the names of the dead on his popular Twitter account to demand government accountability.

The maverick artist has also accused the Chinese government of trying to silence dissidents. "They crack down on everybody who has different opinions -- not even different opinions, just different attitudes," he told CNN last year. "Simply to have different opinions can cost (dissidents) their life; they can be put in jail, can be silenced and can disappear."

Crackdown on dissent in China
Simply to have different opinions can cost (dissidents) their life
--Ai Weiwei, artist and human rights activist, to CNN last year

Observers say Ai's prominence as an artist and as the son of a widely respected poet gave him a measure of protection. That protection is gone. "Mr. Ai Weiwei is under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes," said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, answering a reporter's question at a regular press briefing. "It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression."

He added, "China is a country under the rule of law ... other countries have no right to interfere."

Gao Ying, Ai's mother, dismissed the allegations as "ridiculous."

In the past several weeks, China has detained and arrested a number of lawyers, human rights activists and bloggers amid calls for anti-government protests -- a "jasmine revolution" similar to those that have swept the Middle East and toppled authoritarian regimes.

The government has blocked internet links to such phrases as "jasmine revolution" and names like "Ai Weiwei." Police have also stepped up the harassment of journalists who try to report on these disturbances.

Protests, or what the government refers to as "mass incidents," frequently occur across China every year. Many have sprung from the country's rapid industrialization and urbanization, which have triggered disputes over wages, land seizures, income disparity and pollution.

"But the Chinese authorities seem unable to respond to dissent without taking drastic, even brutal, action," noted Richard Burger, a China-watcher and blogger.

"The willingness on the part of the authorities to employ raw power and make individuals simply disappear is a very troubling aspect of this latest effort," said Joshua Rosenzweig of Dui Hua Foundation, a non-profit organization which seeks to promote human rights in China. "It seems aimed at intimidating both those who have already been taken into custody and those who might worry about being next on the list."

Chinese call this tactic "killing the chicken to scare the monkey" -- a traditional practice of persecuting "scapegoats" to nip dissent in the bud.

In some cases, intimidation seems to work. I had tried twice this week to meet up with a well-known dissident in Beijing to ask his views on the ongoing crackdown. Twice, he canceled, saying that police had dissuaded him from making contact with reporters like me.

But harsh repression, observers say, could backfire. "It only makes icons out of otherwise obscure rabble-rousers," said blogger Richard Burger, citing the persecution of AIDS activist Hu Jia, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and now Ai Weiwei. "The pattern is simple," he said. "Go after an activist who has the eyes and ears of the media with no apparent consideration of the story inevitably becoming big global news." While Beijing may succeed in silencing the troublemaker, he explained, the resulting publicity is far worse than if they'd left him alone." All three of these examples went from being obscure outside of China into poster children of Communist repression, he added.

China's other dilemma is how to contain the spread of information. According to government figures, over 420 million people can access the internet through the use of computers and smart phones. Many of the Web users are young, highly educated, influential and affluent -- just the sort of people who might be inclined to question authority or sympathize with freedom-seeking activists.

That is why Beijing has set up the "Great Firewall," a sophisticated filtering network that blocks various Internet and social networking web sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which have helped fuel the protests in the Middle East.

Beijing is gambling that, with its relatively tight grip on information, Ai and other activists at home and overseas can do little to get their message heard at home.

So far, most Chinese do not know who Ai Weiwei is.