Just a few weeks ago, oil painters in eastern Beijings Songzhuang art district had welcomed foreign reporters into their studios to show off their works tackling such touchy subjects as Chinas prisons and Communist Party politics.
Over lunch, they candidly lamented the state of free speech in China while chewing on chicken and downing glasses of beer.
In a tightly controlled society where dissent is quickly quashed, the artists of Songzhuang appeared to be enjoying a rarely seen degree of creative and political freedom. But then, on Oct. 1, that illusion was shattered.
Police first detained poet Wang Zang after he posted a picture and message on Twitter supporting democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. The next day, police rounded up another seven people who were heading to a poetry reading advertised on social media as supporting Hong Kong protesters. A total of 13 people living or working in the art colony were ultimately detained on charges of creating trouble, according to Wang Zangs wife, Wang Li.
This past weekend, the police buildup was everywhere, with uniformed officers patrolling the aisles of Songzhuangs art shops and riding in golf carts through its sleepy winding streets. Artists who weeks earlier had opened their studio doors wide were apologetically warning away visitors, fearful that speaking too freely could get them into trouble.
Since Songzhuang was founded two decades ago, its artists have largely avoided official harassment by following a few tacit rules: If they produced provocative work, they showed it only to each other, and if they sold it, they did so privately. Most importantly, they kept a low profile.
Painter Tang Jianying, known as one of Songzhuangs most outspoken artists, said his neighbors had crossed that line by taking their dissent to the Internet.
Among friends, we can speak freely, Tang said by phone hours after police had called to check in on him. But if youre in public, you have to watch what you do. If youre on the web and you speak too freely, theyll get you.
Although Chinas Constitution promises free speech rights, in reality, figuring out what you can say or write has always been a guessing game.
Authorities have in recent months tolerated grass-roots protests on environmental issues but at the same time, violently cracked down on Muslim Uighurs in the countrys far west Xinjiang region who have denounced the central governments policies on minorities.
Free-speech illusion at Beijing artists colony shattered by detentions