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China seizes critics as domestic media avert eyes

Why hasn't the government disclosed Ai Weiwei's status? And why aren't domestic media questioning the government? (AP/Andy Wong)

The Chinese security apparatus is kidnapping government critics, unchallenged by the domestic press. Writer Yang Hengjun, who went missing in March and has since reappeared, criticized the Chinese press this week for failing to report on his enforced disappearance. While state media are accusing the missing artist and social critic Ai Weiwei of plagiarism and being "erratic," according to UK-based The Economist, they are not questioning his apparent, unlawful detention.

Rumors are circulating about possible criminal charges that may be filed against Ai, who has been missing since April 4. The government and state media confirmed that he is being investigated for "economic crimes"--although his family has not been officially notified of his detention in accordance with Chinese law, according to international news reports. But the local press has not commented on the failure to observe due process.

What are "economic crimes"? According to media reports, they could include tax evasion, bigamy, and circulating pornography. In interviews, Ai's family maintains that he is being targeted for his political views, manifest in his documentarian approach to art and life. "He videoshoots everyone, he Twitters about everything, so he's trying to build a modern day history of what he sees as social injustice," China-based art gallery owner Meg Maggio told National Public Radio. And the longer it takes to assemble a case, the more it looks as though police are scrambling to pull one out of thin air, as even some ambivalent state media coverage hinted last week.

While the world waits to see how that case progresses, another high-profile person has spoken out about his own disappearance last month, albeit in a roundabout way. Yang Hengjun does not acknowledge outright what many of his supporters believe--that his unscheduled "hospital" visit was an illegal detention at the hands of domestic security forces.

"I don't wish to expend too much time trying to explain," Yang writes on his blog, according to a translation by the Hong Kong University-based China Media Project. But he does question the media's silent acquiescence: 

When I lost contact with the outside world because my mobile was off, perhaps everyone immediately guessed what the "facts" were, and they all knew the "truth." ... For its part, the Chinese media maintained collective silence, and a few website editors even discussed whether or not my essays should be taken down. ...
Why is it that no one actually supposed that I might have been "kidnapped" by criminals who wanted to hold me for ransom, sold out by traitorous "friends," possibly suffered a fallout with a business partner, or even maybe even a jealous lover? In a country in which they say a socialist system of rule of law has been fully built, how is it that the rational line of thought for the Chinese media leads them directly to the government in a "kidnapping" case so that they maintain a shameless and numb distance?

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