China has detained its best-known artist, Ai Weiwei, the latest in a hardline crackdown on expression that human rights groups are warning is the most severe in more than a decade. Ai, an outspoken critic of the government, has not been heard from since Sunday, when he was seized at the Beijing airport. And last week, three pro-democracy activists were charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)—which is punishable by life imprisonment. At least 23 other dissidents are being held, and another dozen are missing and at risk of harm, says CHRD.
The show of force, according to the Hong Kong-based group, is in response to online chatter that began in mid-February calling for weekly “Jasmine revolution”-style protests, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia. The initial posts appeared on a website run by exiled Chinese activists; they encouraged citizens to gather in public spaces like Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s busiest shopping streets, for “strolling” demonstrations. Unlike in Tunisia, however, there has been limited participation by the Chinese, though police have been on hand in great numbers, ready to quash any act of dissent—including that of one man who tried to leave a white jasmine flower outside a McDonald’s.