BEIJING (Reuters) - The mother of detained Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei said Wednesday she feared the government was preparing to prosecute him for his criticism of the state, while a Chinese newspaper attacked Western governments for urging his release.
The editorial in the Global Times was the first time that state-controlled media have taken up the controversy over Ai, who was stopped Sunday from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and taken away by police. The move drew condemnation from Western governments and Chinese human rights advocates who see the case as marking a deepening crackdown.
“The law will not stray off course or make concessions for some ‘special persons’ because of criticism from the West,” said the newspaper.
Ai, 53, has not been in contact with his family since Sunday and his mobile phone remained off Wednesday morning.
There is little doubt that Ai, a combative critic of the ruling Communist Party and a well-known contemporary artist, has joined a list of dozens of dissidents and activists put in detention or informal custody recently. Officials and police have made no comment on his case.
The Global Times suggested the burly, bearded Ai, who had a hand in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had been testing the bounds of official tolerance.
His mother, Gao Ying, said she had been given no information about him, and that the authorities appeared to be gathering a case against him because of his outspoken criticism.
“How can a country with laws do this? If someone is detained for 24 hours, you should at least get an explanation. This was a big step, and they certainly took a long time preparing it,” said Gao, a 77-year-old retired official for the national writers’ association.
“I think they detained him for a reason. If they think they have something, it’s certainly a fixed case, an injustice,” she told Reuters said in a telephone interview.
“I think they’ll concoct some things against him,” she said, adding that the family has put out a missing person’s note.
Since February, the Chinese government’s fears of challenges to one-party rule have been magnified by online calls for “Jasmine Revolution” protest gatherings inspired by the political flux across the Middle East and North Africa.
Even feeble efforts to act on those calls were smothered by police, but the threat of protests has triggered an unusually broad crackdown on dissent. At least three activists have been formally arrested on broad subversion charges often used to jail dissidents.
Gao said she feared Ai could join them. She said officials appeared increasingly angry after he used a team of volunteers to make a list of the names of children buried in a devastating earthquake in southwest Sichuan province in 2008, many in schools that he and others said were poorly built.
“From that time on, I was always filled with a bit of dread. I felt he was very unsafe,” she said, adding that she had urged him not to throw so much energy into controversial causes.
“I urged him not to tackle so much,” she said. “But he answered, ‘If I was crushed to death, wouldn’t you go looking for me too?'”
The Global Times, China’s most popular tabloid, took a sharply different line. It said Western governments were using the “maverick” Ai’s case to attack China’s human rights record, even though they had no details about what may have happened to him or what laws he may have violated.
The United States, Britain, Germany and other governments have denounced Ai’s detention and China’s growing use of extra-judicial detentions against dissidents.
Western critics were “vehemently launching critical attacks against China, and this is a hasty assault on China’s fundamental judicial sovereignty,” the newspaper said.
While it is not an official reaction to the mounting criticism over Ai’s detention, the editorial gives some idea of how propaganda officials may want to handle a dispute which could turn into a diplomatic row. The paper’s message was that this was a case of Western bullying, not Chinese oppression.
“Ai Weiwei himself probably understands that by doing whatever he pleases, and often daring to do what others dare not, while drawing together others like him, he often strays close to the red lines of Chinese law,” said the editorial.
“So long as Ai Weiwei is constantly charging forward, it’s very likely that one day he will hit the boundary.”
History will render its own verdict on people like Ai Weiwei, and before then they may pay some price for their own special choices.”
Ai’s mother, Gao, said she had also received many calls and messages offering support, but she did not think the government would heed those voices.
“It won’t have much effect, because China has its own special ways - we’ll do what we like and what can you do about it?,” she said.
Reporting by Chris Buckley, Editing by Miral Fahmy