World renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei put under house arrest

China’s authoritarianism is at times ruthless and at times, well… confused. A case in point is the decision to put Ai Weiwei, arguably China’s best known artist (a co-designer of the "Bird’s Nest" Olympic Stadium who also has current exhibit at the Tate Modern in London) under house arrest. Ai has been a longtime critic ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

China's authoritarianism is at times ruthless and at times, well… confused. A case in point is the decision to put Ai Weiwei, arguably China's best known artist (a co-designer of the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium who also has current exhibit at the Tate Modern in London) under house arrest. Ai has been a longtime critic of the Chinese government, and he is increasingly in the international spotlight. If the authorities had wanted to merely silence him, they have their ways. If they had wanted to allow him to speak his mind -- perhaps as an example to the world that China is more open than its critics charge -- they could have done so.

Instead, here is what happened, as Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reports:

In what he described as a farcical series of visits by the police, Mr. Ai was told he would not be allowed to host a mass party he had planned to hold in Shanghai on Sunday as a protest against the authorities.

China’s authoritarianism is at times ruthless and at times, well… confused. A case in point is the decision to put Ai Weiwei, arguably China’s best known artist (a co-designer of the "Bird’s Nest" Olympic Stadium who also has current exhibit at the Tate Modern in London) under house arrest. Ai has been a longtime critic of the Chinese government, and he is increasingly in the international spotlight. If the authorities had wanted to merely silence him, they have their ways. If they had wanted to allow him to speak his mind — perhaps as an example to the world that China is more open than its critics charge — they could have done so.

Instead, here is what happened, as Christian Science Monitor‘s Peter Ford reports:

In what he described as a farcical series of visits by the police, Mr. Ai was told he would not be allowed to host a mass party he had planned to hold in Shanghai on Sunday as a protest against the authorities.

"They came at half past midnight and told me they did not wish me to go to Shanghai," Ai said by telephone from his walled compound home on the outskirts of Beijing. "I said that I had already announced the party and that I could not not go.

"They suggested I should announce that I was under house arrest," Ai said. "I told them I could not say that unless I was under house arrest."

After three more visits and continued discussion on Friday morning, Ai recounted, "they told me at 1:30 this afternoon that I was under house arrest."

The backstory is that Ai, who lives in Beijing, had planned a party of sorts to commemorate the destruction of his studio in Shanghai. The local government had declared the studio, not a dissident hotbed, but an "illegal structure" and so slated it for demolition.

The fact of the government taking action to restrict the movements of such a prominent figure is troubling, and in this case a bit surprising. The manner in which Ai  is being supressed is rather wobbly. It is "farcical," as Ford says Ai put it, and reveals something of the government’s confusion or indecisivness (should we or shouldn’t we arrest him?), also worth taking note of.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.