Imprisoned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had the chance to join a government advisory committee shortly before he was detained on April 3, his aides said yesterday. Whether or not he accepted is unclear, but it would appear he said no because now, a Chinese government-owned newspaper is reporting that he is being charged with nonpayment of taxes as well as bigamy and "spreading pornography on the Internet."
Those are pretty damaging accusations (which fit some of the theories already floated of the technical reasons of detention) for the government to make against someone it wanted to hire as an adviser. The natural conclusion to draw is that the Communist Party wanted to shut up the dissident artist one way or another — a sort of "join us or regret it," approach.
That's long been the conclusion of artists and democracy activists in the West, where Ai is quickly achieving folk-hero status. Slate's Tom Scocca notes that Ai was represented by an empty chair at a talk at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where Ai had contributed an "installation of cubic steel frames covered with children's backpacks, part of his series of works addressing the mass deaths of students when substandard school buildings collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan—a subject that put Ai into his most direct conflict with Chinese authorities."
The similarity to Liu Xiaobo's empty chair at last year's Nobel Prize ceremony was impossible to miss, only it's unlikely that anyone mistook Liu's seat for a coat rack. Slate quotes the Boston Globe: "At intervals throughout the talk, different students placed a heavy coat on the chair, removed it, replaced it, and removed it again. The panelists were clearly thrown by the interruption."
Outside the hallowed halls, artists and activists are generating momentum online for a campaign to free Ai. A petition is circulating Twitter while arts communities such as London's ArtLyst do their best to rattle cages. One of the most unexpected groups to rally behind Ai's cause, however, is the blackjack community. Apparently Ai is a hell of a card shark. Slate reports that he had rooms, limousines, and dinners comped by almost every casino in Atlantic City, to which where he would travel by limo every few days while in the United States.
The card-game analogy seems to fit this scenario. China is doubling down by charging Ai, but if the backlash against his detention and that of other activists annoys enough in the West, it could bust. That seems unlikely, however, as Liu has remained in prison for months without consequence for china. Obviously, the stakes aren't too high for China to stay in its authoritarian game.