Ai Weiwei was supposed to be untouchable, too well known as an artist and too well connected as the son of one of China's most famous Communist poets to be treated like the country's other dissidents.
He seemed to think so too, and dreamed up ever more outlandish ways of showing his disdain for the country's authoritarian rulers, including a photograph of his middle finger raised in the direction of the Forbidden City.
And then suddenly he wasn't protected any more. He was detained at customs at Beijing airport on April 3 and taken into custody. His family and friends – not to mention his 79,000 Twitter followers – haven't heard from the 53-year-old since, though the government has confirmed that Mr. Ai is being investigated for unspecified "economic crimes."
A Hong Kong newspaper reported on Thursday that police are preparing charges related to bigamy and distributing pornography. But few doubt that his real offence was offending those who rule China.
Mr. Ai's arrest is the most prominent example of a widening crackdown on dissent in China that is the harshest since Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games.
It's not clear what exactly prompted the Communist Party's tough new line toward its critics, though most trace it to mysterious online calls earlier this year for Chinese to stage a Middle East-inspired "jasmine revolution." Though few protesters actually showed up at the chosen demonstration sights, the online chatter seemed to spook the country's leaders.
Some observers expect the clampdown could last through the sensitive transition period of 2012 and 2013, when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will hand power to a new generation of leaders.
"We're in new territory here," said Phelim Kine, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization. "The message is: If we can touch Ai Weiwei, we can touch anyone. They wanted to expand the fear into levels of society where it hadn't gone before."
Detentions and disappearances
Including Mr. Ai, at least 54 activists, artists, bloggers and human-rights lawyers have disappeared into formal or informal detention since the calls for an uprising began circulating in February.
State media have portrayed the outspoken Mr. Ai – who helped design the "Bird's Nest" stadium in Beijing that was the primary venue for the Olympics – as a "maverick" who knew his activities would eventually land him in trouble.
If you trace the crackdown farther, back to last fall and the announcement that jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the list of government critics being in various forms of detention grows even longer to include prominent figures such as Mr. Liu's wife, Liu Xia..
Harassment of faith groups
Last weekend saw the crackdown expanded to include dozens of parishioners from the Shouwang Church, China's most prominent Protestant "house church." Police moved in after some 1,000 believers tried to hold an outdoor mass in Beijing after they had been evicted from their usual Sunday gathering place.
While Chinese are required by law to worship at state-run churches, mosques and temples, underground churches have become more popular and have been quietly tolerated in recent years.
There has also been a prolonged standoff this week at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Sichuan province. Security forces sealed off the monastery – with some 2,000 monks inside – after one monk self-immolated on the third anniversary of pro-independence riots in the region.
China first barred social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in 2009, as online discussion swirled ahead of the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown that ended the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests against Communist Party rule. Since then, however, many Chinese have learned to circumvent the so-called Great Firewall using proxy servers and virtual private networks.
Now someone has launched a devastating new attack that has crippled many popular VPNs, forcing much of the conversation back within the controlled confines of the Great Firewall. One of the most popular VPN providers, the U.S.-based Witopia Inc., put its struggle with China's censors in science fiction terms.
"The Klingon Empire scored a couple solid hits on the USS Enterprise," Witopia's chief executive officer Bill Bullock said an e-mail to customers in China.
Pressure on foreign media
One of the promises China made in its winning bid for the 2008 Olympics was that it would allow foreign journalists to report freely anywhere in China. That largely held true (unless you were reporting about Tibet) until Feb. 20, the day set for the first "jasmine" protests in Beijing and other cities.
Few actual protesters turned out on that day on Beijing's busy Wangfujing pedestrian mall, but virtually the entire Beijing-based foreign press corps did. Several correspondents were detained after plainclothes security men provoked physical confrontations, and a photographer from Bloomberg News was badly beaten.
In the aftermath, many news organizations – including The Globe and Mail – were called in by the Public Security Bureau for questioning, and several journalists were threatened with having their visas revoked if they continued to cover the "jasmine" story.
No more democracy talk
Perhaps the most significant development has been the change of tone from the very top. Last fall, Mr. Wen startled many by making repeated calls for political reform (a step which revealed that even the Premier could get censored), and a group of the party's elders backed him with an open letter demanding freedom of speech.
Six months later, it seems clear that the conservatives have won, at least for the moment. At a news conference last month after the crackdown began, Mr. Wen repeated some of his remarks about the need for reform.
But he added a giant caveat. "It is not easy to promote political reform in such a populous country," he said shortly after the government publicized a five-year plan that includes no mention of serious political changes. "It should be carried out in a stable and harmonious social environment and under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."