Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu


In recent months, the international spotlight shone on a number of Chinese writers and artists. In October 2010, Ai Weiwei’s stunning Sunflower Seeds installation opened at Tate Modern. The same month, jailed writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In March 2011, it was announced that Bi Feiyu had won the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel Three Sisters. (Chinese writers have now won three out of four of the annual awards, which launched in 2007.) Despite this acclaim, the Chinese government continues to try to silence some of its leading artists. 

According to PEN, Chinese writers and dissidents are currently facing the worst crackdown on freedom of expression in years, with at least forty-nine writers in prison, detained, or put under house arrest – a number even higher than during the 2008 Olympics. The Independent Chinese PEN Centre has been a particular target, with seven members in prison, including Xiaobo.

Ai, one of China’s best-known artists, co-designed the Beijing Olympic stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, but even this public endorsement has not saved him from the wrath of the Chinese authorities. On Sunday 3 April, Ai was detained at Beijing airport en route to Hong Kong. 

Initially no news was given about Ai’s whereabouts or the reason for his arrest. Then on 8 April 2011, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that Ai was under investigation for suspected involvement in ‘economic crimes’. 

The 53-year-old artist has suffered previous harassment because of his outspoken criticism of the government, but many thought that the status of his late father, a renowned poet, and his own high profile would offer him some protection. In August 2009 Ai was badly beaten by Chengdu police for attempting to testify in the trial of imprisoned dissident writer Tan Zuren, with whom Ai had investigated student casualties in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. On 14 September 2009, Ai was diagnosed with a cerebral haemorrhage believed to be a direct result of the police assault. He underwent emergency brain surgery at a hospital in Munich, Germany. 

Ai is also an author, and his first book, Time and Place, a collection of essays on art and architecture and reviews selected from his online publications, was published by Guangxi Normal University Press in September 2010. Its complete, uncensored Chinese version will be published in Hong Kong later this year. 

Last year, on being told that his Shanghai studio was to be demolished, Ai announced he would hold a party to mark its destruction and was immediately placed under house arrest. In December 2010 he was prevented from leaving the country. Like Ai, many dissidents found their movements restricted during the month Xiaobo was to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. A paranoid government blocked all news reports about the prize and prevented Xiaobo’s wife and other family, friends and supporters from travelling to Oslo for the ceremony.

More recently, the Chinese government refused to allow distinguished author Liao Yiwu to participate in American PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature, which took place in New York in the last week of April. The festival’s chairman, Salman Rushdie, denounced the travel ban as ‘a blatant violation of China’s obligations to guarantee freedom of movement and expression’ and ‘an extremely unfortunate statement on the part of Chinese authorities about its willingness to engage in free and open cultural exchange’.

Despite his international reputation, Liao’s works are banned in China. He writes about provocative subjects. In 1989, his epic poem ‘Massacre’, which condemned the killings in Tiananmen Square, resulted in a four-year prison sentence. He is also the author of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up, and a board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre. According to American PEN, the local authorities originally told Liao that he would be able to secure an exit visa to attend its World Voices Festival. However, just days before he was due to travel, he was barred from travelling outside China. Liao was also asked to sign a document agreeing that he would no longer seek to publish his ‘illegal’ works overseas. His new book, God is Red, is due to be published in the United States by HarperCollins in September, and there are concerns that he may face arrest when the book appears.

Readers can write appeals protesting about the arrest of prominent artist and critic Ai Weiwei; seeking immediate guarantees of Ai Weiwei’s safety and urging that he be given full access to legal representation and any necessary medical care as a matter of urgency; reminding the Chinese authorities of their obligations under Article 35 of the Chinese constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which China is a signatory; calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently detained in China for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression; expressing dismay at Liao Yiwu’s recent travel ban; and calling on the authorities to lift all travel bans on dissident writers and artists.

Appeals to be addressed to:

His Excellency Mr Liu Xiaoming
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49–51 Portland Place
Fax: 020 7636 2981

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