An outspoken artist angers rulers with his savage, satirical wit. A crusader for political freedom and social justice, he lives in fear of arrest. Beaten and jailed, he becomes famous far beyond the borders of his land. That was Voltaire, the hero of Europe’s 18th-century Enlightenment. It is also Ai Weiwei, one of China’s best-known artists, seized by the police at the Beijing international airport on April 3, two days after a major German exhibition about the Enlightenment, Europe’s flowering of reason, science and tolerance, opened in the heart of the capital in the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square.
“There is certainly a parallel,” said Bao Pu, the Hong Kong-based political commentator and publisher of New Century Press. His father, Bao Tong, a former aide to the liberal Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, was jailed for seven years after the crushing of the 1989 democracy movement. Like Voltaire’s, Mr. Ai’s work points toward change, Mr. Bao said. “Art is at the forefront of social change,” he said. “In the end, it is part of a larger social context.” Just as Voltaire’s plays and essays angered the ancien régime of France, Mr. Ai’s provocative art angers China’s leadership and, unable to control its message, the government is trying to silence the artist, Mr. Bao said. Yet, he added, “Once you decide to arrest an artist, then people are wondering, ‘Who’s next? A cook?”’
Mr. Ai is not the only artist to have disappeared recently. Cheng Li was sentenced to two years of “re-education through labor” after being detained on March 24 in the Beijing arts village of Songzhuang, said Wei Rujiu, a lawyer involved in the case. Three other artists detained with Mr. Cheng were released on Sunday, he said. The detentions were related to an art show, “Sensitive Times,” with Mr. Cheng’s piece showing a couple simulating sexual intercourse, to express his sense that art has been “sold out,” and “anyone can do it,” Mr. Wei said. Mr. Cheng was sentenced for violating public morals, but within the context of a politically charged show, “I believe it is a warning to the art world not to go too far,” Mr. Wei said.