Acerbic, dissident artist Ai Weiwei languished for more than two months in prison without charges before being abruptly released by Chinese authorities. The government, which may now pursue a civil case against Ai, cites his ‘good attitude,’ while others say international pressure played a role.
By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
11:52 AM PDT, June 22, 2011
Reporting from Beijing
“I’m out. I’m fine,” Ai Weiwei wrote in text messages to friends and supporters about midnight after returning to the art studio where he makes his home in northeastern Beijing.
The official New China News Agency reported that Ai had been freed “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.”
The 54-year-old artist has been reported to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, although he was not known to be seriously ill. More likely the release was a belated response by Chinese authorities to the international reproach that followed Ai’s arrest April 3 at the Beijing Airport.
While dozens of others have been arrested over the last six months in a crackdown on activists, it was Ai — by dint of his stature in the art world — who inspired petitions and demonstrations across the world. In London, the Tate Gallery installed large black letters across its facade reading, “Free Ai Weiwei.” In New York, a Cuban artist used a slide projector at night to cast the artist’s face onto the Chinese consulate.
Ai had not been formally charged, although the state press reported that his company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., had evaded “huge amounts” of taxes. In Wednesday night’s release, New China quoted police saying that “the decision [to release Ai] comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded.”
The wording suggests that Chinese authorities might switch their case against Ai to a civil proceeding, which would allow them to back away gracefully from a situation that has brought great embarrassment. Ai’s attorney, Liu Xiaoyuan, wrote Tuesday night on Twitter that they were still awaiting an accounting from tax authorities of how much money was supposed to be owed. In messages to supporters, Ai said that he was fine, but unable to give interviews under the conditions of his release.
His assistant, Du Yanping, confirmed that Ai had returned home and reported with some satisfaction about her pot-bellied boss: “He got slimmer.”
Human Rights Watch applauded Ai’s release, adding its own caveats.
“The public announcement of his release signals that the Chinese government has had to respond to international pressure and that the cost/benefit ratio of continuing to detain him was no longer tenable,” said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with the organization, in a statement. “Sadly, other Chinese citizens less well-known than Ai Weiwei who have been forcibly disappeared since mid-February remain incommunicado, whereabouts unknown and at high risk of torture.”
Ai, a provocative artist and one of the designers of the Bird’s Nest stadium in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in recent years had become one of the most acerbic critics of the Chinese Communist Party. Much of his latest work has revolved around the tragedy of thousands of children killed when shoddily built schools collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.
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