More than two weeks after he was first detained, Ai Weiwei’s family still hasn’t received official notice from Chinese authorities that they are holding the artist, or what the possible charges against him may be. His mother, Gao Ying, and wife, Lu Qing, posted missing persons notes in Beijing because, for all intents and purposes, all they really know for sure is that Ai has been missing since April 3rd.
And authorities have gone beyond simply detaining Ai. While the world-famous artist’s disappearance has been widely covered and discussed, fewer have taken note that his friends and associates have also been targeted. Four of Ai’s associates are also missing: journalist Wen Tao, Ai’s driver Xiao Pang, ‘FAKE Design’ company accountant Hu Mingfen and ‘FAKE’ designer Liu Zhenggang. Earlier today, Liu Xiaoyuan, a rights lawyer who had represented Ai in the past and had said he was willing to do so again, ‘reappeared’ after a five-day disappearance.
Ai’s family, assistants and volunteers have also been targeted, questioned by local police and contacted by phone and through home visits. Ai’s wife Lu Qing was questioned at the Beijing tax office for three hours last week. His foreign assistants who had lived at the ‘258 Fake Studio’ complex in Beijing — including Inserk Yang, who was featured in the FRONTLINE story — were forced to move out in the days following Ai’s disappearance, and have been pressured to leave the country. Shortly after his disappearance, a member Ai’s cleaning staff, Xiao Wei, was picked up at his home in Anhui province by Beijing and local police and flown to Beijing for questioning. It was his first plane ride.
The nature of possible charges against Ai is still unclear. Statements in Chinese and Hong Kong newspapers have alluded to crimes as diverse as tax evasion, bigamy and spreading pornography online. His family maintains that the charges are politically motivated, saying the company that handles Ai’s financial affairs, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., is registered under wife Lu Qing’s name and belongs to her. All that the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman would say to international journalists last week is that Ai is a suspected criminal, and that foreign support for the artist has confused and angered the Chinese people.
International response has included a coordinated, hour-long sit-in at Chinese embassies and consulates around the world on Sunday, April 17 and the U.S., U.K., France and Germany calling for Ai’s release. The EU delegation to China cited his case in a statement calling for the “Chinese authorities to refrain from using arbitrary detention under any circumstances.” The art community has also spoken up, with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation starting an online petition calling for his immediate release, while the Tate Modern, home to Ai’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ exhibition, put a large sign on their exterior that reads “Release Ai Weiwei.”
Finally, the title of my FRONTLINE segment, Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? has entered the public consciousness and been harnessed as a rallying cry of sorts since his disappearance. Graffiti tags began appearing around Hong Kong with Ai’s face that read “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?” Local authorities said they would seriously investigate the matter, and the student artist who marked up the city risks being charged with criminal damage, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ in prison.
“It will be worth it if just one person sees what I’ve done and asks themselves: `Why should Ai Wei Wei be silenced?'” she told the South China Morning Post.