RED-EYED AND TENSE, the usually uninhibited and irreverent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei seemed a different man in custody as he sat for what his wife says was a brief, monitored meeting — his first contact with the outside world in 43 days.
Authorities have still not detailed why the avant-garde artist and government critic was detained April 3 and held incommunicado, in a case that has prompted an outcry in the art world and among US and EU officials, who have called it a sign of China’s deteriorating human rights.
The burly, bearded 53-year-old appeared conflicted and his eyes were puffy when his wife Lu Qing was allowed to visit him Sunday, though he seemed healthy, Lu told the Associated Press.
“He has changed. His mood and demeanour are so different from the simple and spontaneous Ai Weiwei I know,” Lu said Monday. “It was obvious that without freedom to express himself he was not behaving naturally even with me.”
Lu said she sat face to face with her husband during the meeting in a room at an unknown location and that they were watched by someone “who seemed to be in charge of Ai,” and another who took notes. Ai repeatedly assured her he was physically OK: “My health is good. I am fine, don’t worry.”
Family visits are rarely allowed for suspects under criminal investigation until after they are formally charged.
Dozens of arrests
The Foreign Ministry has said Ai is being investigated for economic crimes, but his detention comes amid a crackdown on dissent apparently sparked by fears that uprisings like those in the Arab world could erupt in China. Ai had been keeping an informal tally on Twitter of the dozens of bloggers, writers and other intellectuals who were detained or arrested in the campaign before he was taken away.
Ai is famous in artistic circles for performance pieces that explore the dizzying changes happening in contemporary China and for irreverent works such as a photo series that shows him giving the middle finger to landmarks such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the White House in Washington.
He is known more popularly as one of the designers of the iconic “Bird’s Nest” national stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and, in recent years, has emerged as an advocate for victims of social injustice.
Lu said the people who arranged the brief visit, who showed her no identification, made it clear that the scope of her questions had to be kept very narrow.
“We could not talk about the economic charges or other stuff, mainly about the family and health,” she said. “We were careful, we knew that the deal could be broken at any moment, so we were careful.”
Ai suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. He told his wife that he takes long walks everyday, has his blood pressure checked seven times a day, and that he eats and sleeps very well.
Despite the visit, much about Ai’s case remains murky. Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer and friend of Ai’s who met with Lu today to discuss the visit, said it sounded like Ai was being held under residential surveillance somewhere outside Beijing.
Chinese law allows police to impose residential surveillance for up to six months before requiring them to make a decision about how to proceed with a case, as opposed to the 30 days allowed for criminal detention, said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based research manager for the US human rights group Dui Hua Foundation.
Such surveillance usually takes place at the suspect’s home and is “supposed to be a less restrictive measure than detention,” Rosenzweig said in an e-mail. “Instead, the police seem to be using residential surveillance as a way to legitimise extended, incommunicado detention outside of a regular detention facility.”