China's authoritarianism is at times ruthless and at times, well… confused. A case in point is the decision to put Ai Weiwei, arguably China's best known artist (a co-designer of the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium who also has current exhibit at the Tate Modern in London) under house arrest. Ai has been a longtime critic of the Chinese government, and he is increasingly in the international spotlight. If the authorities had wanted to merely silence him, they have their ways. If they had wanted to allow him to speak his mind -- perhaps as an example to the world that China is more open than its critics charge -- they could have done so.
Instead, here is what happened, as Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reports:
In what he described as a farcical series of visits by the police, Mr. Ai was told he would not be allowed to host a mass party he had planned to hold in Shanghai on Sunday as a protest against the authorities.
"They came at half past midnight and told me they did not wish me to go to Shanghai," Ai said by telephone from his walled compound home on the outskirts of Beijing. "I said that I had already announced the party and that I could not not go.
"They suggested I should announce that I was under house arrest," Ai said. "I told them I could not say that unless I was under house arrest."
After three more visits and continued discussion on Friday morning, Ai recounted, "they told me at 1:30 this afternoon that I was under house arrest."
The backstory is that Ai, who lives in Beijing, had planned a party of sorts to commemorate the destruction of his studio in Shanghai. The local government had declared the studio, not a dissident hotbed, but an "illegal structure" and so slated it for demolition.
The fact of the government taking action to restrict the movements of such a prominent figure is troubling, and in this case a bit surprising. The manner in which Ai is being supressed is rather wobbly. It is "farcical," as Ford says Ai put it, and reveals something of the government's confusion or indecisivness (should we or shouldn't we arrest him?), also worth taking note of.