Liao Yiwu, a Chinese writer who has also been under house arrest (image via

We have been staying on top of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s arrest in two consecutive blog posts. Yet it’s also important to be aware that Ai’s arrest is only one symptom of a greater crackdown on free expression in China that has been deemed the “Big Chill.” Other victims detained and arrested include writers, lawyers and Chinese cultural figures.

Evan Osnos, China correspondent for the New Yorker, coined the “Big Chill” in a New Yorker article, describing an increasingly tense situation in China. Recent symptoms of the crackdown have included the monitoring, house arrest and detainment of liberal and pro-democracy activists in China as well as increased scrutiny on foreign reporters in the country, with some reporters victim to physical beatings as well. The Chinese government has since denied that government police were behind attacks on reporters.

Osnos writes on the widespread impact of Chinese arrest,

Last week, a court gave a ten-year sentence to the democracy activist Liu Xianbin for “inciting subversion of state power”—the same charges that were brought against the Nobel Peace Price winner Liu Xiaobo. That same charge has now been brought against three others: Chen Wei, a forty-two-year-old rights activist in Sichuan; Ding Mao, a forty-five-year-old dissident; and Ran Yunfei, perhaps the best known of the three, a writer with forty-four thousand Twitter followers.

The Big Chill crackdown is seen as the government’s reaction to the “Jasmine Revolution,” a sustained attempt by the Chinese people to echo the revolutions in the Middle East through protest. Planning of Jasmine Revolution protests occurred largely through online social media, communications that have since gotten participants arrested for “inciting subversion of state power.” The nonviolent protests began on February 20, and were met by massive police security. Protest sites have been closely monitored and guarded since. For more information and documentation, see the extensive Wikipedia article.

With this in the background, the Chinese government has been putting away whoever they perceive as being anti-government at a staggering rate. This isn’t just a few people, or paranoia-induced reactionism. This is a clear attempt to redraw the lines of what free expression is permissible in China, as several sources have pointed out. Organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has a detailed list of individuals who have been formally arrested or have simply disappeared. Victims range from 20 year old bloggers to Chinese human rights lawyers and activists. It’s clear that the government is casting its net wide, not only targeting individuals with international visibility. Find CHRD’s chart, documenting status and charges, below.

China Geeks has an up kept, live updated list of arrests, detentions and disappearances occasioned by the Chinese government. The latest addition to the list is Ai Weiwei.

Osnos writes in the initial New Yorker article,

One thing about the ongoing rash of arrests is startling, and it has potential impact on China beyond what the current crop of leadership might anticipate: authorities appear poised to hand down surpassingly strict sentences, which virtually guarantees that names which have been heretofore unknown to the world will soon become cause célèbre.

While censoring speech and detaining individuals might work for the Chinese government in the short run, the momentum of international attention to the plight of these cultural figures could make them wish they hadn’t gone down this route. While the names of victims have been piling up and tension steadily rising, the arrest of Ai Weiwei presents a visible international gauntlet thrown down — will the world let China get away with making a cultural figure of immediate global importance disappear? In the end, the victim of the Big Chill isn’t Ai Weiwei, it’s the Chinese people.


  • At Hyperallergic, we have tracked the story of Ai Weiwei’s arrest through two blog posts updated live as news came in. The initial report can be found here while the most recent liveblog is here. Stay tuned for more updates later today.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

2 replies on “The Other Victims of China’s “Big Chill” Crackdown”

  1. Wait.. there are other artists in China??? Well, I guess when all the reporting is about Ai Weiwei….

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