U.S. should press China on rights crackdown, Ai detention

New York, April 7, 2011–With China in the midst of a sweeping crackdown on public dissent, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should follow the example of Britain and Germany and call for the immediate release of detained artist and social critic Ai Weiwei and other detained journalists and dissidents, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The two countries’ foreign ministries have each urged China to release Ai, according to Reuters.

In Shanghai during his final address as U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman criticized Ai and Liu Xiaobo’s treatment, the Times reported. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists the Obama administration was “deeply concerned” about forced disappearances in China, but neither Clinton nor other senior administration officials have commented on the case.

“Secretary of State Clinton should join with her counterparts in Britain and Germany who are seeing the release of Ai and others,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “We are witnessing the Chinese government’s harshest roundup of critics in recent years, and the U.S. government should be at the forefront of efforts to secure their freedom.”

The European Parliament passed a resolution today calling for Ai’s unconditional release. The European Union’s participation in the next EP-China interparliamentary meeting would be dependent on EP members’ access to select detainees in Chinese prisons, the resolution said. On Wednesday, CPJ had called on the parliament to speak out on Ai Weiwei and imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during an emergency debate on Ai’s disappearance.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, told journalists at a press briefing for foreign media today that the artist was “under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes,” according to Agence France-Presse. The statement was the first acknowledgement that Ai is in official custody since his disappearance Sunday. Hong did not elaborate on Ai’s whereabouts or the status of the investigation.

Ai has experienced official harassment before. Police beat him in 2009 to prevent him from testifying at imprisoned journalist Tan Zuoren’s trial. He and Tan documented the names of children killed as poorly constructed school buildings collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai also made a film of his efforts to secure the release of an assistant who had been detained. CPJ is concerned that Ai has been targeted, along with a growing list of writers and activists, for publishing critical statements about the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

International news reports said an associate of Ai’s, Wen Tao, has also been missing since Sunday and feared detained. Wen was making a documentary film about the death of a villager who online reports say was murdered by corrupt officials, according to The New York Times.

China’s wave of arrests and forced disappearances began in February after unsigned calls for anti-government demonstrations began circulating on Chinese-language websites, inspired by unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. Some cases, like that of democracy activist Liu Xianbin, who was found guilty on March 25 of inciting subversion through online articles, have been brewing since long before the recent crackdown. But the severity of his 10-year sentence, on a charge that carries a usual maximum of five years, bodes ill for victims of more recent arrests, like online writer Ran Yunfei, who has been indicted for the same crime.

The government’s refusal to acknowledge several of the detentions, or to enforce Chinese criminal law, is another disturbing feature of the repression, which extends to the Internet, professional Chinese journalists, ethnic minority websites, and the foreign press, according to CPJ research.

Chinese media reports on Ai Weiwei, whose detention has made global headlines this week, reflect his ambiguous legal status. An article announcing he was under investigation appeared on the English-language Xinhua website, but disappeared an hour later, according to California-based website China Digital Times, which published a screenshot of the article. A Global Times editorial Wednesday made vague reference to the likelihood that Ai would one day cross “a line,” without confirming his detention. The reasons for Ai’s “being removed” from Beijing airport, which the editorial misreported as occurring on April 1, would probably soon be made clear, the Times said in a sentence that was missing from its own English translation. The daily Global Times is published by the official Communist Party People’s Daily. Chinese online commentators are using the phonetically similar phrase “Ai Weilai,” or “Love the future,” to discuss the case online, according to international news reports.