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Ai Weiwei only the most prominent activist targeted in broad Chinese crackdown

Ai Weiwei is among more than 100 activists to have disappeared, been detained, or confined to their homes in a wave of repression signaling deep anxiety over Arab revolts and the power of the Internet.

By Staff writer / April 15, 2011

Pro-democracy protesters place a picture of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei outside the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong on April 10, as they are demanding to release Ai.

Kin Cheung/AP

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Beijing

The fiercest wave of repression that the Chinese government has launched in more than a decade, targeting lawyers, bloggers, social activists, journalists, and artists, signals a harsh new intolerance of criticism, local and foreign analysts say.

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At a sensitive political moment as China’s leadership prepares for a transition of power to a new generation, it is aimed at staving off the kind of popular uprising bringing profound change to the Middle East, toppling rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatening others in Libya and Yemen.

And the security forces’ blunt disregard for Chinese law – disappearing some victims into secret jails, detaining others without charge, and keeping more under illegal house arrest – shows how far they are prepared to go, in defiance of widespread international condemnation. Although the Middle East is far away, some of the social problems that have sparked unrest there – corruption and vast inequality – are familiar in China, too.

“They are afraid of what has happened in North Africa,” says Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer. “A revolution in China is very unlikely, but the government is used to thinking of worst-case scenarios.”

Five famous jailed dissidents in China: Ai Weiwei to Liu Xiaobo

Over the past eight weeks, more than 100 activists have disappeared, been detained, or are confined to their homes. The internationally renowned artist and government critic Ai Weiwei, seized on his way to Hong Kong and now under investigation for alleged “economic crimes” according to officials, is only the most prominent.

Other casualties range from Christians arrested for trying to worship outdoors after being evicted from their normal premises to patrons of a gay bar in Shanghai that was raided recently and Beijing college students whose planned debate on the 1911 overthrow of the last Chinese emperor was canceled on the orders of local Communist Party officials.

At the same time, censors have tightened the noose on the Internet, which 460 million Chinese use, narrowing the range of permissible comment on blogs, chat rooms, and other forums.

Searching for “Ai Weiwei” or “revolution” on Sina Weibo, the most popular Twitter-style site in China, brings up a message reading: “According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results have not been shown.”

Few outsiders believe that Arab-style unrest is likely here. But the role that social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which have Chinese clones, have played in the uprisings throughout the Middle East seems to have prompted an official rethink about the impact of free expression.

Unease with online expression

Until recently, the authorities appeared to view the Internet as a safety valve where citizens could vent on certain subjects – within limits. Now they seem to fear it as a petri dish cultivating dangerously unsanctioned opinions that might spread more widely.

“There has been a reassessment,” says one senior Western diplomat. “They are utterly spooked by the ‘Jasmine’ revolutions. They have seen the damage that the Internet can do, and they are not going to take any risks.”

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