Apparently, Ai Weiwei has been placed under house arrest for threatening to host a dinner. There is more to it than that, of course — for details see this, this, this, etc. — but I’m more interested in raising a couple of other points here.
It’s not at all surprising that the authorities were freaked out by the ideal of Ai Weiwei throwing a big, sarcastic demolition party and inviting his whole dissident Twitter army. I doubt that even Ai himself expected the event to go off without a hitch.
That said, his movement in the past few years has been relatively free, and, aside from that little knock on the head, authorities seemed content to harass the people around him, leaving him more or less alone. Undoubtedly, his international fame had something to do with it. Authorities have understandably been hesitant to directly harass a guy who has most of the foreign correspondents in Beijing on his speed dial. And the fact that he’s also Ai Qing’s son must also have helped. He was, according to some, one of the few people who had gotten big enough that they were more or less free to say what they liked without too much fear of repercussions (another is Han Han, whose magazine has apparently been nixed for good).
Given that, it’s interesting that the police chose to detain Ai himself, instead of allowing him to go to Shanghai and derailing the event by arresting everyone else who showed up. That is a fairly common tactic for them (most recently, the October 8th gatherings celebrating Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize were broken up in this fashion), and it was what I expected when I saw that Ai Weiwei was planning to hold the dinner.
It has been a busy fall for the authorities, what with Liu Xiaobo’s prize, the Party Elders’ letter, and even Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments about political reform to CNN, which someone apparently decided needed to be censored domestically (one hopes the irony of censoring the Premier is not totally lost on whoever pushed the button). Given these things — and the rash of arrests that followed the first one — I wonder if Ai’s house arrest is perhaps another signal of a strategic shift to an even more direct method of enforcement.
Arresting Ai himself is undoubtedly easier than letting him hold the event and then undermining it (although, as Evan Osnos points out, Ai Weiwei is probably making life hell for the poor cops assigned to keep him at home). But it’s also more blunt, and has turned the whole thing into an ongoing news story.
So the question is, is this strategy an indication that the authorities no longer care about making this kind of news, or is it just another example of the government shooting its own foot?
(As a sidenote, whatever the reason for detaining Ai, it doesn’t seem to have worked, reports coming in from Twitter indicate that there are already nearly a thousand people at the “River Crab banquet”. Interested parties can follow periodic updates via milpitas95035 on Twitter.)
Also, many apologies for the lack of posts recently. I’ve been working on finishing up the first ChinaGeeks Films original documentary! It will likely be another week (at least) before the final product is ready (still need to add subtitles, cutaways, and wait for the narrator to record his bits so I can do the final audio mixing) so the relative dearth of posts may continue until then.