Having an opinion on the arrest of Ai Weiwei is easy. A renowned and respected artist with reformist political views, arrested and detained without trace. And he had his studio demolished . The cultural world can find a common position on something that clearcut.
But Ai’s arrest, while disturbing for the man and his coterie, is even more significant for its indication of the broader political climate in China. Arrests, detentions and repression happen all the time in China, and the CCP would have known that its actions against Ai would have created an international media furore, so why now?
The answer may lie in the near-extreme paranoia Beijing is currently showing to political reformism in the wake of the ‘Arab spring’. Amid online calls for a ‘jasmine revolution’ in China to replicate the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the CCP has launched a counter-attack, arresting up to 50 people and placing another 200 under house arrest.
The thing is, the jasmine revolution had been something of a non-starter. The first attempt to gather people together to highlight the revolution occurred on 20 February, with Chinese citizens exhorted to gather in 13 sites, such as outside McDonald’s on Wangfujing, Beijing’s busiest shopping street. The result was farcical: any protesters were difficult to identify given that the sites were all major thoroughfares and were overwhelmingly outnumbered by uniformed and non-uniformed security forces and international media representatives.
The reaction by the jasmine organisers was to call for weekly ‘strolling’ protests, whereby reformists can register their discontent by, err, walking past protest sites. Given that they are all shopping streets, cinemas or other pedestrian-heavy sites, it’s pretty difficult to tell who’s protesting and who’s just strolling. This hasn’t stopped the authorities from continuing to deploy security forces and closing some sites down for ‘cleaning’ at the appointed time of gathering.
The CCP’s paranoia is not entirely misplaced. There has been a growing reformist movement in China for some years, having been crushed by the Tiananmen Square massacre. Charter ’08, a manifesto launched by Chinese intellectuals and activists in December 2008 designed to resemble Charter 77, was the most public demonstration of this movement’s growing influence. One of its authors, Liu Xiaobo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, much to Beijing’s chagrin.
Amid rising inflation, which incidentally was one of the prime causes behind the Tiananmen Square unrest, the CCP is nervous. Very nervous. Hence, its somewhat cackhanded response to calls for ‘茉莉革命’, the jasmine revolution.
The irony is that it is just this sort of reaction the jasmine organisers may want. As Beijing reacts to the call for revolution, it looks like a giant blindly swatting anything it mistrusts while missing its intended target. The overly draconian response may only inspire more discontent among the population and fuel support for exactly the kinds of reforms the jasmine movement wants. Even Ai Weiwei admitted on Twitter four days after the first gathering that at first he ignored the jasmine movement, but it slowly gained credibility in his mind.
A jasmine revolution may be a distant goal and the CCP still remains firmly in control. But it is exactly the policies such as the reaction to jasmine and the arrest of Ai and other reformers that could well act as a long-term delegimitising force for the party.