Controversies China

Ai Weiwei released on bail

Artist is freed but still faces charges of "serious economic crimes"

Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio in 2010 (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

SHANGHAI/BEIJING. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was freed on bail yesterday (Wednesday 22 June). The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 90th anniversary on 1 July. It frequently releases dissidents before such high profile state events.

State newspaper Xinhua reported that Ai had confessed to "crimes" of tax evasion and was co-operating with the authorities. According to Xinhua, police said Ai's company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, "was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents". His family has denied these accusations.

State news reports added that the artist was in ill health. It is known Ai takes regular medication, and has high blood pressure and diabetes. After his release, Ai told AFP: "I'm fine. I'm very happy to be free and I'm very happy to be back with my family" but said he could not discuss any details as "I'm on bail so I can't give out any information. I can't do interviews."

Earlier in the week there was a rumour circulating that Ai had been released, but this was denied by his friends and relatives.

There has been an air of paranoia in the mainland Chinese art world, especially in Beijing, following Ai's arrest in April. “Things are really hard at the moment, no one can really talk. Now, if people want to talk we have to go somewhere outside, but still there are these directional microphones,” one person familiar with the situation, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed.

Artists Lin Bing and Fei Xiaosheng, who curated a show with a blank space left for Ai Weiwei’s work, were held temporarily for questioning and released earlier this month.

Meanwhile, in the run up to the 90th anniversary celebrations, internet access has been severely limited, and telecommunications have been behaving erratically.

The current situation is much more sophisticated than the security crackdown after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Ex-Tiananmen dissidents are posting pictures of the 1989 protests online, as many of the younger generation know nothing of the incident. Those 1989 protestors are being referred to as the "early red chili pepper seeds" who have given birth to today's "jasmine flowers". Similarly, the sunflower seeds used in Ai's work are becoming something of a symbol of protest. Metaphors and code words are common ways of expressing dissent in China.

Members of the Chinese security forces who talked anonymously to The Art Newspaper earlier this month, said they believed Ai would be released on bail in “a number of months rather than years". They said Ai’s was accused of "serious economic crimes" and the reason for his arrest "isn't political". They said at the time investigations were still underway.

Tax has long been used as a tool by the Chinese government to exert pressure on its opponents, as the rules are so complex. As one US official commented: “If you want to be an activist in China you had better keep your finances squeaky clean.”

Most of the Chinese art world has remained silent over the arrest of Ai.

Updated on 23 June 2011

Ai Weiwei greets reporters outside his home in Beijing on Wednesday after being released after nearly three months of detention (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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