The 54-year-old dissident artist’s release after 81 days in detention raises more questions than it answers. There is no word on whether he was formally charged or tried except Ai’s release comes with a caveat: a year-long probation that prohibits him from leaving Beijing without government permission. “I’m sorry I can’t talk,” Ai told friends and reporters outside his Beijing home and studio hours after his release. “I am on probation, please understand.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Ai was still under investigation for unspecified offences. His “obtaining a guarantee pending a trial” can last up to 12 months, according to Hong. “Ai is still in the investigation period for suspected crimes,” he said. “He is not allowed to leave where he lives, cannot interfere (with) other people’s testimony, [and] cannot fabricate evidence nor collaborate with others to make false confession.”
Ai was arrested on 3 April and detained for “inciting subversion” to which later was added “economic crimes.” The real reason was retaliation for a long record of social and political activism. Ai Weiwei rose to international prominence in the mid 1990s. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, he lived in the US in the 1980s studying design and building his art portfolio. In 1993 he came home due to his father’s illness and established an experimental artists’ village. In 2000, he curated a Shanghai exhibition of 46 avant-garde artists called “fuck off” which allegedly featured self-mutilation, human corpses and body parts as well as cannibalism and was the subject of a Scotland Yard investigation. Shanghai police were not impressed either and closed the exhibition down before the finish date.
By 2005 the BBC called him “one of the stars of China’s art world” with work appearing in exhibitions across the world. Ai told the British broadcaster he had not held a solo show in China as the country was “not yet ready.” Ai was also experimenting at the bounds of political expression expressing negative comments about the Olympics (despite designing the Bird’s Nest stadium) and supporting an investigation into heavy casualties of the Sichuan earthquake. In 2009 he was beaten up by police when he tried to testify for dissident Tan Zuoren sentenced to five years for trumped-up state subversion charges when he tried to investigate the earthquake.
The authorities stepped up their harassment as Ai became a more vocal critic of the regime. Last year, he was stopped at Beijing’s airport from flying to South Korea because authorities feared he might go to Oslo to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for his friend Liu Xiaobo. Then they ordered a demolition of his Shanghai studio saying it was built illegally. Ai decided to hold a party to mark the demolition and issued an open invite to attend via Twitter. On the day of the party national security officers placed him under house arrest. “They came last night and tried to interview me, saying I should not do it because it was getting too big,” he said. “This is the general tragedy of this nation. Everything has to be dealt with by police. It is like you use an axe to do all the housework because this is the only tool you have.”
The party went ahead without Ai who was released two days later. The studio was demolished in January and Ai was arrested in April. Chinese authorities were paranoid the contagion of Middle Eastern revolutions might spread to their country, revolutions Ai supported. In the weeks after mid-February, China arrested 26 people, while 30 more disappeared presumed held by security forces, and 200 were placed under “soft detention.” Ai was arrested without explanation and with no communication to family or friends. Police blocked off the streets to his studio and took away laptops and the hard drive from the main computer, and detained eight staff members and his wife Lu Qing for questioning.
Initially claiming his arrest was due to issues with his travel documentation, authorities changed their tune citing “economic crimes”. Financial fraud has been convenient catch-all to shut down opponents of the regime. Ai’s 78-year-old mother, Gao Ying denounced the government line. “Economic crimes! They say one thing now and another later. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “They must tell the family why and where they are holding my son? They have no right to keep us guessing. Where is the Constitution? Where is the law?”
Art groups created the protest “1,001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” to call for artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world on 17 April “to sit peacefully in support of the artist’s immediate release.” Other museums and cultural organisations around the world signed an online petition expressing concern for “Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought.” As Ai’s release yesterday proved, China’s “promise” comes with strings attached.