It's been almost two weeks since one of China's most famous artists, the maverick prankster Ai Weiwei, was detained by his government for "economic crimes." Best known for his work on Beijing's "Bird Nest" Olympic Stadium, Ai had openly mocked China's autocratic rulers for some time, and seemed impervious to censorship. But, as the Chinese "Big Chill" continues, Ai has now become the government's most notorious detainee. Will the widespread Western condemnation of Ai's arrest hurt China's push to be recognized as a global superpower?
This has renewed opposition to Chinese autocracy: The detention of Ai has "put a global spotlight on the current bout of repression," says Austin Ramzy at TIME. The U.S., Europe, and Australia have all "raised his case," and the censorship of free thought in China has the world's attention. "It's an irony that Ai would appreciate: His criticisms of the Chinese state can be heard loudest now that he can't be heard at all."
"The activist artist of China"
Change is imminent, and China knows it: The brutal nature of China's crackdown on Ai and others, says The Economist, shows that its leaders are nervous. Political change is "imminent." Next year, a new generation of politicians will take over the country, and the old guard is worried that those "aggrieved" at the state would "represent a potent force" if they coalesced. The West must continue to hold China to account. "Speaking out might just help to constrain the regime's behavior."
There are many ways to suppress speech: "In a story echoing Ai's that went almost unnoticed," says Nicole Gelinas at the Los Angeles Times, the consumer giant Unilever was asked by Beijing's authorities to stifle a price raise — and it did. Prices, too, are an "expression of free speech." Distorting the price of global goods could affect the U.S. economy — which could finally cause the West to wake up and take action.
"China gags economic speech too"