The news that Ai Weiwei (艾未未) was to be released spread like wildfire on Chinese Twitter on Wednesday night. About 10pm that evening, I received an e-mail from a friend which included a Xinhua news agency press release, in Chinese and English, about Ai’s imminent release on bail. At 11:30pm, a much slimmer Ai was finally released and traveled by car to his workshop in the Caochangdi art district of Beijing. I, and many others who care about Ai, breathed a deep sigh of relief.
It is easy to imagine that his first night after being released was a sleepless one, with his mind in turmoil. His elder sister and his mother have already found ways to break through the shield of the Chinese government that blocks foreign media. What Ai needs most now is to get online to see how the international community and Chinese and international media reacted to his detention and release and to discover what else has happened in the world during the 80 days he was detained. All this is crucial to determine how he will continue to deal with the full might of the state apparatus.
From the moment I heard in Berlin on April 3 that Ai had been detained by police, throughout Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia, I could feel the growing concern of European authors like Herta Muller, Vaclav Havel, Ivan Klima and Elfriede Jelinek, and indeed of all of those who were worried about his freedom and who called on the Chinese government to release him.
We were overjoyed by the news of his release, but the joy was short-lived, for another doubt quickly followed: Was Ai truly free?
He has already told friends that one of the conditions of his release was that he would not communicate with the outside world for at least a year — either through the press or through social networking sites like Twitter.
According to Article 56 of China’s Criminal Procedure Act, individuals released on bail, as Ai has been, have to observe four restrictions for a period of a year: They should not leave their city or county of residence without the permission of the competent authorities; they need to report any communications they make as soon as they do so; they should not seek to interfere with witnesses in any way, form or manner; and they cannot destroy or forge evidence, nor collude with others to do so. Consequently, Ai cannot expect to enjoy the same freedom he had before his arrest.
The next questions we have to ask is whether Ai will have freedom of movement within Beijing. Will his lawyer be able to represent him and publicly refute the charges of tax evasion Chinese officials have leveled against him? And will this lawyer be able to secure the release of the four associates that went missing along with Ai — the artist’s friend and assistant Wen Tao (文濤), his driver Zhang Jingsong (張勁松), his accountant Hu Mingfen (胡明芬) and designer Liu Zhenggang (劉正剛)?
How long can Ai bear not being able to talk to the media, give interviews and express his political views? How long can he tolerate the Twitter ban and the lack of online activity? How long can he take not being able to travel abroad or participate in international events? These are all freedoms that Ai, in the past, used to the full.
Is exile going to be the price he has to pay for true freedom? Will he be obliged, at some point in time, to go overseas on the pretext of holding an exhibition and become an artist in exile?
We will have to wait and see what the future holds for Ai Weiwei.
Bei Ling is a poet and essayist who divides his time between Germany and Taiwan. He was imprisoned in 2000 in Beijing for trying to publish Tendency, a literary magazine.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON AND PAUL COOPER
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