Ai Weiwei learned from an early age what it means to fall into disfavor in an autocratically governed country. His father, accused of anti-communist activities, was forcibly relocated alongside his family. Young Ai Weiwei learned his lesson: This was no place for dissident thinkers.
When Ai Weiwei was arrested in April 2011, he was not officially accused of political crimes. But the political motivations of the Chinese authorities were blatantly obvious when they approached him shortly before he was due to leave China. He was detained for months without charges – a tactic that is typical for Chinese authorities, especially when dissidents are arrested for their political activism.
But Ai Weiwei could be considered lucky. Because of his prominent status, he was treated well and released from prison after a relatively short period of time. His name is well-known in China, partially because he contributed to the construction of the “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing. Internationally, too, he has many admirers of his art. After his arrest, an unprecedented protest storm developed around the world. But let’s not forget that Ai Weiwei’s case is special. Lesser known activists often face a different fate after they are arrested for political reasons. Take Ni Yulan, a courageous lawyer from Beijing. When she filmed the forcible destruction of houses in 2002, she was arrested and tortured in prison. She has been in a wheelchair since then. Several days after Ai Weiwei’s arrest, she was detained again and later sentences to two years and eight months imprisonment. The charge: Incitement and fraud.
Ai Weiwei and Ni Yulan stand for a growing number of activists who stand up for human rights in China. During the last few years, Ai Weiwei has repeatedly spoken out in favor of internet freedom. But he also raised his voice when Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Chinese Nobel laureate, was put on trial in 2009. In court, Ni Yulan represented people who had been removed from their homes without adequate compensation. After her legal license had been revoked several times and she had been imprisoned, she continued to dispense legal advice to people who found themselves in troublesome situations.
But the situation has worsened for defenders of human rights, like Ai Weiwei or Ni Yulan. For the past year, Chinese authorities have proceeded massively against politically active citizens. One reason were the events of the Arab Spring. Evidently, the authorities were afraid of a possible “Jasmine Revolution” in China. The upcoming change of the country’s (and the Communist Party’s) political leadership has also proved unsettling to Chinese officials.
The arbitrary nature of the authorities’ campaign against politically unwanted persons illustrates how far removed China is from effective protection of human rights, and especially from respect for civil and political rights – and it is uncertain whether we can expect change in the near future. Tensions within China are rising, and social inequalities are growing. Currently, repression seems to be the official tactic of choice to address protests. People like Ai Weiwei and Ni Yulan, who peacefully defend the rights of others, will continue to be targets for official harassment and victims of repression. We must worry that the Chinese government will continue its hardline stance against defenders of human rights.