The release of political dissident Ai Weiwei (often translated as "Love the Future" by his supporters) is the latest blemish on China’s human rights records.
After being detained for 81 days, the artist who helped design the 2008 Olympics "Bird’s Nest" stadium was released from government detention on Wednesday night. Western press was quick to note that although he has been released, Ai remains anything but free. He is prohibited from speaking with the media and travelling outside of Beijing. Perhaps most significantly, the avid social media user has abandoned his Twitter account, which he previously utilized to regularly thumb his nose at government policy.
The Chinese foreign ministry has insisted that “relevant countries respect China’s judicial sovereignty” regarding to Ai’s situation. Such stubborn muscle-flexing reveals the cracks in the Chinese struggle to remain true to communism while also integrating itself into the international community — two things that do not go hand in hand. Indeed, while Ai has become the poster-child for human rights and criminal justice reform in China, Beijing’s most notable captive, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, is still serving his 11-year jail sentence.
The state has often tried to play the “misunderstood card” in explaining its civil rights policy. China has argued it is fundamentally different from Western societies – that allowing 1.3 billion voices to speak freely in China is entirely different from allowing 308 million voices speak freely in America. In fact, three days before Ai’s arrest in April, the state-run Global Times ran a vehement editorial denouncing the West for constantly attacking China about human rights issues and warning that Ai Weiwei’s subversive actions were toeing the line.
This kind of rhetoric may have been acceptable before China stepped decisively onto the global stage, but it is high time for change.
As China has risen in economic prominence, so have international expectations of its moral compass — and as the release of Ai shows, the state will not be quick to change. Even though Ai’s political dissent and provocative statements, such as his insinuation that China should follow the “Jasmine Revolution” in Egypt and Tunisia, make his detention very obviously politically motivated, state press nonetheless insisted that Ai was being held under dubious charges of tax evasion.
China may indeed be correct that applying Western expectations to the Chinese government is not necessarily a productive solution to China’s political problems. However, China’s inflexibility and inability to acknowledge some merits of the international community’s position keeps the country in a one-step forward, two-steps back routine.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons