Free Speech

06.23.11

Ai Weiwei Comes Home

Released but not free, the famed Chinese artist is out of jail but muzzled and constrained by the government. Melinda Liu and Isaac Stone Fish report from Beijing.

After nearly three months in detention, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has been released on bail and sent home.  But he's far from free. Speaking to The Daily Beast/Newsweek by phone, Ai said he has been restricted from traveling outside Beijing or giving substantive interviews to the press for “at least a year.”

Ai returned home late Wednesday night. Appearing on Thursday afternoon sporting a white t-shirt with the words Ai Weiwei and sporting a new hair cut—"I cut it myself; it's more 'energetic,'" he joked—he waved and posed for the dozens of journalists who'd gathered at his home.  But he revealed no details about his detention.

Chinese authorities said Ai, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, was released because he had an undisclosed "chronic disease" and had shown a "good attitude in confessing his crimes," which the government alleged included evading “huge amounts of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents." Ai, who had lost weight during his three months in detention, seemed haggard. "Thank you-um, actually, I haven’t rested at all [but] I’m not tired,” he said, apologizing that he won’t be able to grant interviews. "I’m sorry. I just wanted to see everyone once. You know my current situation. I can’t leave Beijing…I can’t discuss any details about the case. You’re all friends. Leave. It’s going to rain. Thank you. Please."

Earlier in the day, Ai's brick compound in Beijing's Caochangdi art district—where many galleries feature the grey brick walls and austere architectural lines that are Ai's trademark—was the focus not only journalists but also three Chinese plainclothes police who described themselves as "drivers".

At one point, two Chinese men approached the house and unfurled two white posters saying, in English and Chinese, "I love you Ai Weiwei June 23".  They said they were artists and "acquaintances of Ai Weiwei" before driving off, with the Chinese "drivers" in hot pursuit.

“I heard about a lot of international pressure. But it’s hard to rationalize any of this.” – Ai Wei Wei

In two separate phone conversations with The Daily Beast/Newsweek, Ai described his situation: "I'm out on bail, my health is okay now," he said. When asked about the reason for his release, Ai answered, "I have no idea.  I heard about a lot of international pressure. But it’s hard to rationalize any of this. And I cannot say anything, really."  

He made it clear that a condition of his release was that he would not talk to media about his experiences behind bars or his advocacy of human rights for the next 12 months. Asked if he might still face trial in the future, he said, "there shouldn't be a trial, but then again: who knows?"  When asked point-blank if he suffered mistreatment while in detention, he paused for a significant moment, and then replied, "I can't really say anything. Sorry."

Ai may be unable to speak freely now. But in November 2009, he wrote an exclusive essay for Newsweek, describing his severe, life-threatening beating at the hands of the government, and encouraging President Obama to press the goverment on human rights as he made his first visit to China.

“In China, there is a long history of the government not revealing information, so it's difficult for the Chinese people to ever know the truth,” he wrote. “What does it matter if China's economy grows when there are no basic protections for its citizens? Obama must be clear about the West's values of freedom and human dignity.” In his art, Ai has also been confrontational and candid. At one point Ai, 53, posted a nude image of his own naked torso online. And from the outset, Ai's detention was an unusual case, in part because of his international fame and background as the son of one of modern China's most famous poets. Given his parentage, Ai is considered a "princeling," a member of the political elite.  

The stipulation that Ai cannot talk to media is part of what technically is called "obtaining a guarantee pending a trial". Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told a regular news briefing that it can last up to 12 months. (Under Chinese law, the phrasing is the closest equivalent to "being released on bail.")  Hong also confirmed that "Ai is still in the investigation period for suspected crimes," meaning he could yet stand trial in the future.

When asked if Ai's release is connected to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's upcoming trip to Europe where Ai has many supporters, Hong responded, "The Chinese judicial authorities have acted in accordance with the law and have independently acted on the case," he said. "We hope the relevant countries will be able to respect China's judicial sovereignty and not interfere in it."