Controversies China

Is China easing up on dissent? Not really

Ai Weiwei and his associates have been released, but many critics of the government are still being detained or silenced

While Ai Weiwei has been freed, other dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo are still being detained

SHANGHAI/BEIJING. The question has arisen: Does the release of Ai Weiwei indicate a thaw in China’s political “deep freeze”? Since Ai was freed on bail earlier this month, all his associates, Wen Tao, Xiao Pang, Hu Mingfen, and Liu Zhenggang have also been released, and the high profile dissident Aids activist Hu Jia has been freed as well. But many more dissidents remain behind bars—notably Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, the disappeared lawyer Gao Zhisheng, journalist and poet Shi Tao and detained activist Ran Yunfei. Human rights watchers cite dozens of activists that have been detained or silenced. Both Ai and the recently released Hu have refused to comment to the press as a condition of their release.

“We are all very happy Ai Weiwei has been released. We cannot report it, but that is how China is,” said the editor of a major Shanghai newspaper. “There is a simple reason he was released—his surname is Ai. His father was Ai Qing (a well known poet and Communist official). Premier Wen Jiabao is leaving his post soon, this must be his decision.” Ai’s release also coincided with Wen Jiabao’s trip to Europe, and the move is thought to indicate Wen hoped to deflect criticism from the European press during his trip. A US China political insider commented: “Ai is known to the party hierarchy, he is the son of a former high ranking official, and with all the noise abroad, this must have influenced the decision.”

As China approaches its next leadership handover, former Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping is widely believed to be in line to lead the country. This transition process is partly responsible for the current troubles, as no potential candidate or faction wants to be seen as soft on dissent. Xi’s wife is also believed to be a powerful player in cultural circles, as she is a former folk singing star.

The future of China’s remaining dissidents seems unclear, but it is unlikely there will be another amnesty-style mass release for some time to come. Recently there has also been a crack down on entertainment stars.

One positive outcome may be that Ai Weiwei has gained global and local reputation as an artist and is now much better known in China following his arrest. An art professor said, “before my students didn’t know who Ai Weiwei is, now they do. This is his greatest work.”

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