"Can I become a citizen of India to campaign for democracy?" asked Ai Weiwei during an HT interview last November.
The arrest on Sunday of the global face of Chinese dissident art and co-designer of the Bird's Nest stadium - Ai Weiwei -has sent a chill among outspoken circles in Beijing. "It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday after incessant media questions.
The artist, his whereabouts unknown, is being investigated for 'suspected economic crimes'. Privately, some liberal Chinese intellectuals say they interpret this arrest as a signal that China now cares less what the world thinks of its rights record.
Despite his past brush with house arrests and even a thrashing from Chengdu police, there was a sense that Ai, 53, was safer than obscure dissidents when he spoke up on rights cases and tweeted eight hours a day to over 65,000 followers behind the firewall.
He is the son of a renowned poet and a man of international influence. His exhibit on 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds - he compared the seeds to tweets in conversation with HT - is showing at the Tate Modern in London. Next month, his exhibit is slated for display in Fifth Avenue, New York.
As a critic of communist rule, Ai is as well-known as jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. After Liu won the Prize, dissidents were saying that they felt 'fearless'. That atmosphere was short-lived. These days, intellectuals admit to self-censorship and avoid directly criticising the Party in writing. Internet restrictions have tightened, Gmail access is disrupted and reports of arrested activists continue by the day.
This arrest for 'economic crimes' coincides with an ongoing crackdown on dissenters since West Asia-inspired online posts called for protest strolls in Chinese cities. Chinese intellectuals are surprised at the severity of Beijing's reaction because most of them don't support such street protests.
After the US, UK, France and Germany called for Ai's release, Global Times broke the state's silence with an editorial. "In China, it is impossible to have no persons like Ai Weiwei," it said, "or no 'red line' for them in law."