With an impending European visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Ai’s release served a strategic purpose and came after weeks of intense international pressure. Both Britain and Germany had lobbied vociferously on Ai’s behalf; on the façade of the Tate Modern museum in London, huge letters spelled out “Release Ai Weiwei,” and at the recent art fair in Basel, Switzerland, visitors perused avant-garde artwork, wearing paper masks of his face. “They just had to free him,” says a European ambassador to China, requesting anonymity. Otherwise, “this would have been a trip about Ai Weiwei and nothing else.
The first tightening came when Chinese security forces began to "tidy" the city in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and its thousands of international visitors. Among those tidied away was Hu Jia, an Aids activist who concluded that the authorities' lack of respect for Aids patients and orphans was rooted in a disregard of human rights. He was imprisoned for fear he might embarrass the authorities during the Games.
It was pretty minor stuff. Among others arrested were people protesting at being forced from their homes for Games redevelopment. Two elderly women were given "re-education" sentences merely for requesting permission to demonstrate. In the months that followed there was low-level harassment of lawyers who acted for such victims.
But it was with the award of the Nobel prize to Liu Xiaobo last October that things moved up a gear. Beijing reacted angrily, blocking all foreign news broadcasts into China.
Mr. Hu was said to have been ordered not to talk to the media and was to be denied political rights for one year.
He was regarded as a potential Nobel winner and the nation’s leading political activist when he was detained in 2007. He became known early on as an environmental crusader, advocate for sufferers of AIDS and vocal critic of state actions against the downtrodden. He was an early user of blogs to spread his message, a method of protest that has become both ubiquitous and difficult for Chinese authorities to control.
The accusation that he had subverted state power was based in part on a caustic essay posted on his blog in which he detailed the torture of two people who protested the illegal seizure of their Beijing home.
There are concerns today that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been banned from Twitter by authorities, despite his recent release from prison. After protests on Facebook, Change.org, and a surprise appearance in a video at TED, the artist and activist is out on one year bail, due to his “good attitude” in admitting to tax evasion, the AFP reported. The release, however, is purported to come with several conditions:
- Ai has to seek permission before leaving Beijing
- Ai cannot accept interviews requested by foreign media
- Ai is banned from Twitter, as he told the Daily Telegraph
Apparently, the conditions are put in place to keep Ai Weiwei in silence.
State propaganda organ China Daily:
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's release on bail conforms strictly with China's legal procedure - just as his detention did. The reason for his release on bail cannot be clearer - good attitude in confessing to his crimes, the chronic disease he suffers from and expressing his willingness to repay the taxes he evaded, as the police explained.
Yet, Western media made the same fuss on his release as they did on his detention more than two months ago.
Their simple assumption is that Ai was released because the Chinese government had given in to the pressure exerted by some political forces in the West. Some media went as far as to say that the West should apply even more pressure on the Chinese government on human rights.
Some others interpreted Ai's release as a move by the Chinese government to create favorable conditions for Premier Wen Jiabao's trip to Europe.
Joshua Rosenzweig is with the DuiHua Foundation, which works for the release of political prisoners in China. He says the economic charges against Ai Weiwei seemed an afterthought:
“It seems they detained him first, and came up with justifications later,” Rosenzweig said. “Which has led a lot of people to think the tax charge was not the reason they detained him in the first place. It was to take him out of the picture, to make this vocal critic of China silent for a period of time.”
He’s not the only one being silenced. Amnesty International says more than 130 Chinese civil rights activists have been detained this year, in the wake of government concern that the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa might give Chinese ideas.
Not one leading artist of the older generation -- not Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan, Cai Guo Qiang or Zeng Fanzhi -- spoke out on Ai Weiwei’s behalf. Xu Bing, a MacArthur Foundation prize-winner and now vice chairman at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, who many think aspires to be China’s next minister of culture, openly said that he was not interested in politics when asked to comment on Ai Weiwei's case. Only among younger artists, those born after 1980, many of whom look up to Ai Weiwei, did I find support for the belief that he had been framed, with the charges trumped up to silence him and his incessant agitation on Twitter. Ai Weiwei had a huge Twitter following of over 60,000 in Chinese, though the site is not available in China. Younger artists know how to get around the Great Firewall and get access to his tweets. Though they might not have the courage to engage in social activism themselves, they certainly appreciate Ai Weiwei's stance. In the days after his detention, hundreds of young artists changed their profiles on Weibo, China's equivalent to Facebook, to a picture of Ai Weiwei in a gesture of solidarity.
THOUGH CHINA’S Communist Party bosses may be as paranoid and repressive as ever, they are also nervous about their vulnerabilities in a global marketplace. It’s not a coincidence that Chinese artist and free-speech advocate Ai Weiwei was released on bail just days before Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is to embark on a trip to Europe.
Ai is well-known in China not only for his artwork, which has been shown around the world, but also as a free spirit who ridiculed party honchos at every opportunity. His arrest in March on suspicion of tax evasion — formal charges were never filed — was a transparent ploy to silence him. The detention of someone of his stature was also meant to scare anyone in China who might be contemplating a citizen revolt like the ones sweeping the Arab world.
Friends and associates said he had been released on the understanding he would not cause further trouble to the government, which has come under strong diplomatic condemnation for its detention of the 54-year-old artist and other dissidents. He cannot leave Beijing without permission and is banned from using Twitter and other microblogging sites. Ai's name has even been blocked from search engines in China.
Scores of other government critics and activists remain under house arrest, some unable to even meet with friends, and have had their telephone and internet access cut off intermittently.
Next October, Vice-President Xi Jinping is expected to take over as CCP secretary-general, the source of power for China's top leader, from Hu Jintao.
Deputy Premier Li Keqiang is expected to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao, but the seven other positions in China's Politburo Standing Committee, who rule the country in quorum, are likely to become vacant.
Fresh faces will also be appointed to the 30-person Politburo, which will choose the top nine from its own ranks.
This has triggered factional manoeuvring that has led to a typical crackdown.
The Independent again:
It is important to be realistic about the nature of relations between China and the West. But it is also vital not to be cowed into silent acquiescence. David Cameron should this week take a break from the task of finding ways for our two countries to benefit from economic complementarities to congratulate the Chinese political establishment on its release of Ai Weiwei. He should then ask about the other 1,426 individuals known to be languishing in Chinese jails for political or religious reasons.
Before his arrest, Ai Weiwei was tireless in condemning the arbitrary nature of China's government. But his impact as an activist paled in comparison with how his April 3 disappearance into a secret Beijing police "safehouse" exposed the unfairness of the country's criminal justice system. By detaining him on suspicion of vague "economic crimes," China's leaders made him an international cause celebre whose case clearly illustrated the helplessness of any individual when confronted by the untrammeled power of the state...
It is telling that he was apparently never formally arrested, not to mention indicted, tried, convicted or sentenced...In these circumstances, bail is simply a way of relieving the pressures on the Chinese government while limiting his freedom of expression, even though he seems to have never been charged with any offense.
Mr. Ai made clear on arriving home that he is no longer free to speak and criticize in the ways that made him world famous. He will not be using Twitter, Facebook, email, public meetings, interviews, books and art exhibitions to mock the Communist authorities as he previously delighted in doing.Like others before him, Mr. Ai is now acutely aware that any misstep can lead to his renewed incarceration, undoubtedly for much longer than his initial confinement.