When the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was living in New York in the 1980s, he was a prodigious gambler. So avid was his blackjack habit that an Atlantic City casino used to send a limo to pick him up from his unfurnished room in the then down-at-heel Lower East Side. He joked that his neighbours probably thought he was a newly-arrived Chinese drug dealer.
He won't be laughing now. For Ai Weiwei – who is best known in Britain for his Sunflower Seeds installation in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall – raised the stakes so high that the Chinese authorities finally cracked. A week ago, they detained him at Beijing airport and he hasn't been seen since. You might think he gambled on them not daring to arrest so high-profile a critic. After all, Ai is probably the best-known Chinese non-politician in the West. But the truth is more complicated.
In the course of making a Radio 4 Profile programme about him last week, we spoke to Ai's sister, GaoGe, in China. She told us that, after he had been beaten up by police and nearly killed in 2009, his mother begged him to stop antagonising the government. He refused, saying he was old enough not to care about life or death any more. He told his family they should prepare for three eventualities: he could be sent to jail, deported, or killed mysteriously, perhaps in a car crash.
Ai was determined to follow the precepts of the Polish dissident, Adam Michnik, who famously said, "Our most eloquent form of dissent is to live our lives as if we are not living in a closed society." Ai posted all his thoughts on his blog until the government shut it down. He then took, with alacrity, to Twitter, where he built up 77,000 followers in a country which has blocked the site. (Canny Chinese netheads know how to get round the restrictions.)
He subverted the security regime by openly filming the surveillance officers who were filming him or inviting them to join him for dinner. He would then post photos of them on Twitter. One of his favourite pranks was to call in the local police to deal with the goons tailing him, delighting in the confusion he caused by setting one security agency off against another.
Most of all, he has never cared in the slightest what other people think of his behaviour. He posted virtually naked pictures of himself leaping into the air on his blog: braver still given his almost spherical, Buddha-like body. He produced a series of photographs of his middle finger sticking it to the White House, the Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square. And he boycotted the Beijing Olympics, disparaging it as a "fake smile", despite having personally designed the memorable bird's-nest stadium.
The Chinese Communist Party doesn't know how to deal with people like Ai. The regime has oscillated between tolerating and intimidating him. Earlier this year, the authorities bulldozed his Shanghai studio. And the 2009 beating gave him a cerebral haemorrhage, which would have killed him had he not had an emergency operation on a trip to install an exhibition in Munich. Yet he was still able to whip up public outrage about the deaths of children in shoddily-built schools after the Sichuan earthquake. And, before it was shut down, he was vociferous on his blog about the lack of freedom in China.
So why has the Chinese Government now become so intolerant of dissent? The past few months have seen the biggest round-up of critics in a decade. Human Rights Watch says that since February, some 25 activists, lawyers and bloggers have been detained by the authorities or have simply vanished. It also claims that "between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to an array of repressive measures ranging from police summonses to house arrest." Ai is not alone; he is simply the best-known.
This is part of a worrying longer-term trend. The US State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report, published on Friday, said that last year, human rights there worsened. The violations included, among many others, "extrajudicial killings, including executions without due process; enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, including prolonged illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities known as 'black jails'; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; and detention and harassment of journalists, writers, dissidents, petitioners, and others who sought to peacefully exercise their rights under the law."
The report highlights some hair-raising individual cases. Two years ago, Zhang Shijun, a former PLA soldier, wrote an open letter to President Hu Jintao expressing regret over his involvement in the Tiananmen massacre and urging the Chinese Communist Party to reconsider its condemnation of the 1989 demonstrations. He was detained by the police and hasn't been seen since.
Last November, Cheng Jianping was sentenced to a year in a labour camp for re-tweeting a message related to a dispute between China and Japan. Her purported crime was "disturbing social order". He Zhi, a Falun Gong practitioner, died mysteriously in April while serving an eight-year prison sentence. The prison authorities said the cause of death was "falling out of bed". His brother says his body was covered in injuries and bruises.
Even if due process of law is supposedly followed, defendants can't expect to get a fair trial. There is no presumption of innocence, and according to the China Law Yearbook, the conviction rate in criminal trials in 2009 was 99.9 per cent. It's not surprising, perhaps, that the Chinese Government should be alarmed by the Arab Spring. From the Boxer Rebellion to the Communist Revolution, change in China has come about through mass revolt. Add in the speed with which unrest can spread through social networking, and the threat to the Communist regime may look disquieting.
But Chinese people are generally far more content with their lot than, say, the Egyptians. A survey by the Pew Research Center last March found that 87 per cent of Chinese were satisfied with the way things were going in their country, compared with just 28 per cent of Egyptians.
The Arab Spring was fertilised as much by the price of bread as it was by a yearning for a bicameral Parliament. Only 20 per cent of Egyptians said their country's economic situation was good, compared with 91 per cent of Chinese. Asked to rate their own position on a "ladder of life", Chinese were three times more likely than Egyptians both to say they were near the top and to expect more progress. Egyptians were also much more likely to say that their quality of life had worsened over the previous five years, while two-thirds of Chinese said their life had improved.
So the Chinese state is hardly under threat; yet still it remains paranoid. Yesterday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told the US not to interfere after Hillary Clinton called for the release of activists, including Ai Weiwei. Now the Chinese authorities are in the ridiculous position of being oversensitive about criticism inside the country and oversensitive about criticism from outside about how they react to internal dissent.
They can't have it both ways. We'll stop condemning them if they allow people like Ai Weiwei to live in peace. Until they release him, and his fellow victims, we must not lessen the pressure. In the end, if the regime can't see sense, the only hope for Ai Weiwei and his compatriots is that we make it more painful for China to detain them than to put up with the truths they tell.Reuse content