The release of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, after more than two months in detention on trumped up charges of tax evasion, has been welcomed around the world. The most high profile victim of the CCP’s latest crackdown is now home–under tight restrictions and unable to talk to the media- but finally out of China’s infamous jail system.
Speculation is abound regarding the timing of the release; with some analysts suggesting that it was deliberately staged to coincide with the upcoming US-China diplomatic meeting in Hawaii and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s European tour –both beginning this Saturday. Its easy to see how this conclusion is drawn, after all Ai Weiwei has received phenomenal support and attention from governments and citizens worldwide; his case would surely have featured in closed door discussions, and on placards outside, over the coming days.
However, others challenge the theory that the CCP was simply pre-empting criticism –suggesting that Mr. Wen and his cronies care little what the rest of the world thinks when it comes to human rights. Evidence of this is abundant, including the recent military crackdown at Kirti monastery in Tibet, a vicious attack on blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng last week and the escalating suppression of Christian groups. Then there is the fact that the authorities were confident enough to detain Ai Weiwei in the first place- despite his international profile and support.
It is also important to remember that he is not yet truly free, simply on bail just as many other Chinese activists have found themselves before subsequent rearrest. And whilst he is the most well known of the dissidents detained since the CCP launched its newest, vehement assault on freedoms in response to mass demonstrations elsewhere in the world, he is simply one of over one hundred. These men and women remain in jail, in labour camps and in torture chambers, away from the eyes of the world and with little hope of liberty.
So though there may have been an element of face-saving in today’s release, it does not reflect the CCP bowing to international pressure and certainly does not reflect the CCP changing its attitude towards human rights. Whilst Ai Weiwei’s comparable freedom must by welcomed and celebrated, it should not detract from the bigger picture and the systematic abuse which he himself was detained for highlighting.
The challenge for activists now is to engage and build upon the popular support that his case generated. Many artists, students and other members of the public across the globe were not previously involved in campaigns relating to China or even to human rights, but were motivated to act by this one unjust and high profile imprisonment. It is imperative that their involvement does not end with a celebration tonight. Those working for Tibet, East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, religious freedom and Chinese democracy must ensure that the message is loud and clear: Ai Weiwei has been released- but the fight goes on…and we need your support.