Ai Weiwei, the renowned artist who is among the most prominent dissidents detained in China’s sweeping recent crackdown on dissent, has been released on bail after confessing to tax evasion.
Ai’s release after nearly three months’ detention was not directly confirmed by him or his immediate family on Wednesday. However, Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Beijing, was able to reach Ai and verify the news first-hand.
“He has confirmed that he has been freed – he’s at home,” our correspondent said.
Ai “said that he couldn’t tell us anything at all except that he can’t tell us anything”.
Ai did say, however, that he had lost “a lot of weight” while in detention, our correspondent said.
Reacting to the news of the artist’s release, Catherine Barber, deputy director of the UK-based Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific programme, told Al Jazeera it “certainly looks like Ai Weiwei is under continuing restrictions” of some kind.
“All the activists released recently have been restricted, and some indeed kept in illegal house arrest after their release,” she said.
“We would call on the authorities to lift all restrictions on Ai Weiwei’s freedom of expression.”
The official Xinhua news agency said late on Wednesday that Ai’s poor health was a factor in his release decision.
The brief report on state media said Ai had shown a “good attitude in confessing his crimes” and repeatedly pledged to pay taxes he owed.
Arts editor, Hrag Vartanian comments on the release
But our correspondent said the Chinese government released Ai in order to head off further embarrassment and international pressure, and that his supporters maintain the motives behind his detention were purely political.
Formal charges against him have never been announced, and the state media report did not mention any pending charges or trial.
Ai’s family and supporters have previously dismissed the tax-evasion accusations, and his wife, Lu Qing, said the company in question is registered and belongs to her, not him. The company handles the business aspects of Ai’s art career.
Ai is among China’s most internationally known artists and had a hand in designing Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium before souring on the event. His fame has grown in recent years, both for his groundbreaking art and his bold irreverence towards authority.
A global pattern
Ai’s detention at Beijing’s airport on April 3 made him the most famous victim of a sweeping crackdown against dissent in China that began in February when online calls for protests similar to those in the Middle East
and North Africa began to circulate.
“China has been very, very jumpy, particularly in light of the Arab Spring, which of course started back in the beginning of the year,” Al Jazeera’s Thomas said.
“And China has been … concerned that something could spread here and there definitely been a crackdown this year on all kinds of political dissent.”
Hundreds of Chinese lawyers, activists, and other intellectuals have disappeared or been questioned or detained by authorities in the clampdown.
Ai had been keeping an informal tally of the detentions on Twitter. Ai was held under a form of detention known as residential surveillance somewhere outside Beijing.
Lu was permitted one brief, monitored meeting in which she said he seemed well cared for and was not being held in a formal jail.
Ai’s detention prompted an international outcry among artists, politicians and human-rights activists, and Western leaders called it a sign of China’s deteriorating human rights situation.
His family and supporters said he was being punished for speaking out about the Communist leadership and social problems.
Ai has also spoken critically about a number of national scandals, including the deaths of students in shoddily built schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, children killed or sickened by tainted infant formula and a deadly skyscraper fire in Shanghai that killed 58 and was blamed on negligent workers and corrupt inspectors.
Amnesty International’s Barber said on Wednesday that the same amount of international criticism should continue for the Chinese government regarding those who are still detained but lack the kind of global profile that Ai has.
“Ai Weiwei is one of 130 people detained since February and many of them are still anguishing in secret detention,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Indeed, four of his associates, we believe, are still in such detention … . It’s very important that all of these people are released.”