China is seeking to muzzle the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei after he was freed from prison yesterday, 80 days after being detained following his repeated calls for democratic reform. "I'm fine, I'm out. I'm very happy. I can't say anything more, because I'm on bail. Please understand," Ai told reporters outside his home in Beijing last night.
His release comes just before Premier Wen Jiabao arrives in Britain on a European tour and follows a sustained campaign for Ai's release by supporters outside China. The country's most high-profile prisoner, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, remains in jail on subversion charges.
State media said yesterday that Ai was freed after he admitted tax evasion. "He confessed his crimes in good spirit and suffers from a chronic disease," according to a brief statement by the official Xinhua news agency. "The decision comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded."
The artist, 54, is best known for his work on the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing. Police said his company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, "was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents".
Ai was arrested at Beijing airport in April, the latest in a series of official actions against him that supporters say are because of his backing for democratic reform in China. In 2009, police burst into his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him up, causing a brain bleed, while in January his Shanghai studio was demolished.
What is unclear is what happens to Ai now. He could be placed under house arrest, like other critics of the regime, or sent abroad into exile. Catherine Baber, of Amnesty International, said: "While Ai Weiwei's release on bail is an important step, the reality is his long detention without charge violated China's own legal process. Ai Weiwei must now be granted his full liberty and not be held under illegal house arrest, as has been the pattern with so many others." As the son of the revered poet Ai Qing, denounced during the Cultural Revolution and packed off to a labour camp, Ai has always been able to work with relative freedom in China.
He is famously scratchy, mischievous and impatient, thriving on controversy in a way that was always going to set him at odds with the all-powerful Communist Party. "Democracy is not a condition we can really choose or not choose: it's absolutely necessary," he said in an interview earlier this year. "Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's difficult, and sometimes can be even dramatic, but I believe what we do is very necessary and essential. It is something that we cannot really avoid by living in China."
The release appears to be a compromise deal, which saves the face of both sides. There had been rumours that the government was taken aback by the scale of the international reaction to his arrest, but his outspoken criticism was difficult for the Chinese authorities to ignore.
As well as regularly exhibiting in the UK, Ai was in the process of buying a studio in Berlin when he was arrested and he was appointed a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin during his incarceration.
The British sculptor Anish Kapoor said he was delighted to hear of the release but said that artists should continue to refuse to show their work in China.
Ai's arrest was the highest-profile event in a tough crackdown by Chinese authorities on dissident behaviour, following protests against totalitarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.
Some further releases are expected in the coming days. The prominent HIV/Aids activist Hu Jia, who has served his three-and-a-half year sentence for sedition, is expected to be released this weekend.
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