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The last month has been difficult for Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most famous artists and political dissidents.
Two of his Google e-mail accounts have been hacked by “unknown visitors” who read and copied all of his e-mails, and state security agents have rifled through his bank accounts after telling bank staff he was under investigation for unspecified suspected crimes.
He has also been told the government intends to throw him out of the country if he doesn’t stop his public criticism of human rights abuses.
Google’s decision to risk its Chinese business operations in protest over the hacking of Gmail accounts belonging to Mr Ai and other Chinese dissidents comes after a month in which Beijing has repeatedly ignored international criticism and struck a tough stance on a procession of human rights cases.
“Over the last month we’ve seen a particularly obvious manifestation of the increasingly hardline stance the government is taking toward cases involving freedom of expression or ethnic minorities,” according to Joshua Rosenzweig, senior manager at the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights group.
In late December the Chinese government sentenced Liu Xiaobo, a prominent writer and political activist, to 11 years in prison for circulating a document on the internet, convinced Cambodia to return 20 Uighur asylum-seekers to China and executed British citizen Akmal Shaikh.
In each of these cases Beijing has ignored all attempts from outside the country to influence its decisions in what human rights groups say is a sign of its growing willingness to defy international opinion.
“The Chinese authorities are sending the message that they don’t need to be concerned about the impact of Western governments or their requests and that they can continue with their policies without any negative repercussions,” according to Roseann Rife, deputy program director in Asia-Pacific for Amnesty International. “This is all part of a package that includes a harder line from the Chinese government in a range of multilateral talks – from economic recovery and climate change to territorial disputes.”
During his visit to Beijing in November, Barack Obama, US president, specifically raised the case of Liu Xiaobo, co-author of a call for political reform known as “Charter 08”, while Gordon Brown, British prime minister, personally requested clemency for Mr Shaikh.
In late December, in spite of protests from the UN and the US, Cambodia repatriated 20 ethnic Uighurs who had fled China for fear of execution or persecution in the wake of August’s deadly ethnic riots in the western province of Xinjiang.
Two days later China unveiled a $1.2bn aid package for Cambodia, prompting universal condemnation from human rights groups.
In the past, pressure from western governments has often led to the freeing of prominent Chinese dissidents, frequently timed to coincide with visits by US presidents or other leaders but the last time this happened was in mid-2008, according to Mr Rosenzweig.
“The strategies western governments used to influence China on these issues in the past are no longer working and there is no consensus on the best way to engage China under these new circumstances,” he said.
Far from being accompanied by a show of clemency, Mr Obama’s trip to China in November prompted Beijing to round up scores of political dissidents and critics of the government so they could not disrupt the visit.
Mr Ai’s outspoken criticism during that visit is one possible reason why the government wants to force him to leave the country, something he says he will not do.
“I’m fighting for very basic essential rights here and I have no reason to leave my homeland,” he told the Financial Times.