The arrest of prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has revealed an extensive crackdown against inernal dissidents by the authorities in Beijing. It seems that there are serious concerns within the Chinese government that the “Arab Spring” could spill into Asia.
Ai Weiwei, a celebrated Chinese artist whose works include the sunflower seed exhibit in London’s Tate Modern and the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, has become the latest victim of a crackdown aimed at pre-empting a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China. The arrest of such a well-known and popular international personage implies that the Chinese government is taking scattered calls for protests on the internet very seriously, and as per usual it’s unlikely that any outside criticism or pressure will result in the campaign being called off.
The phenomenon of outside pressure being at best ineffective and at worst counter-productive is not anything new. The Chinese government has been very successful in branding outside human rights criticisms as hypocritical for the consumption of its domestic audience. The official line is that human rights criticism is a pretext for neo-imperialism, and the line works quite well. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Ai Weiwei arrest came right as a US state department report criticising Chinese human rights abuses was about to be published. Simply put, the Chinese government doesn’t view such reports as threats to its continued existence anymore. Quite the contrary, it affords Beijing an opportunity to score nationalism points with its domestic audience in the form of an official rebuke. For proof of this, one needs look no further than the fact China Daily capitalized on this recent opportunity to ridicule the government of the United States, branding it a ‘preacher of human rights.’ After all, if the Chinese government truly viewed such reports as a threat, there would simply be no mention of them in official media channels in China.
Western governments themselves are increasingly aware of this dynamic, and their own public criticisms of Chinese human rights abuses have become more about pleasing their own political constituents and less about effecting positive change in China.
Thus, the group with the most possible sway in this unfolding crackdown is the very same that triggered its launch-internet users in China. While it’s extremely far-fetched to imagine that this unorganized mosaic of Chinese citizens could effectively pressure Beijing to ease back on the crackdown, the Chinese blogosphere does represent an interesting x-factor by virtue of their hypothetical legitimacy in the eyes of the wider Chinese public. Their prospects are pretty grim, as evidenced by the fact the original call for protests that triggered this new crackdown fell flat. But, if recent popular movements have taught us anything it’s that these kinds of situations can explode quite suddenly.
There are several important conclusions that can be drawn from recent events. First, despite some signals to indicate otherwise, the Chinese government is still extremely sensitive about the potential for internal protest movements. Note the word potential is critical here, for most of these recent arrests have been over actions that certain activists could take in the near future, and not for things they’ve actually done. Second, this rigid crackdown is likely to remain in effect until leadership starts to roll over in 2012, if not longer. It seems that the responsibility for the decision over whether or not to allow for some more political space in Chinese civil society has been passed along to the next generation of leaders.