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Ai Weiwei Is Released (but his freedom of expression isn’t) UPDATED

WeiweiMet.jpg
Ai Weiwei on Metropolitan Museum’s roof garden
Photo from the website of upcoming film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

I’ve been away from the computer all day, for personal reasons—my own diagnosis this morning of “patellofemoral syndrome” (aka “bum knee”); my friend’s need for me to accompany her to an afternoon hospital appointment.

So I’m now just catching up with the cheering news of Ai Weiwei‘s release by Chinese authorities, after his 81 days in detention.

New York Public Radio
(WNYC) had e-mailed me late this morning for comment on this development, but since the station has already published a long post on its website, I assume I’m too late. [Wait a minute! While still writing this, I've learned that they may yet add my remarks.]

[UPDATE: They expanded their post to use some of my other comments in this post, as well as some of the statement below.]

Here’s what I sent them:

The entire international artworld and all who value human rights rejoice at Ai Weiwei’s long overdue release.

But there’s a certain irony in the statement of U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner, at a news conference today, that “it’s always a good thing when such an individual,… who’s only in prison for exercising his internationally recognized human rights, is released.”

It appears, in fact, that Ai’s release was conditioned on his renouncing his “internationally recognized human rights”: A report in the Wall Street Journal stated today that he has been barred from speaking to the media (or tweeting!) for at least a year.

Freedom of expression is essential to an artist’s work. Although his body may have been freed, his mind and creative spirit are still in detention. I suspect that after a period of physical and mental recuperation from his ordeal, this irrepressible, resilient artist may somehow find a way yet again to make himself heard and understood.

We must also hope that Ai’s associates, who were also detained, will now be released.

Here’s the full Q&A (scroll down) with the State Department’s spokesperson, which occurred before our government had received official confirmation of Ai’s release:

Q: Would you—if these reports are correct, would this be—would you be happy?

Mark Toner: Look, it would always be—it’s always a good thing
when such an individual, as we said, who’s only in prison for
exercising their—his internationally recognized human rights, is
released. But there’s obviously more individuals who’ve—who are being
held, so we want to see and urge—we want to see a release of all these
people.

Q: So his release would be a good thing but you’d like to see more?

Toner: Yes.

Comments posted in English and Chinese on the Twitter page of Alison Klayman, director of the upcoming documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, indicate that Ai, upon his release, responded positively to friends’ text messages asking if he had been freed. Klayman herself tweeted at 12:04 p.m., U.S. Eastern time, that she had spoken (by phone) with him: “He is with his mom and happy he is out.”

As usual, Tania Branigan of the Guardian is the go-to person for an illuminating on-the-ground report from Beijing. In her long article, Branigan notes:

Although in theory police are able to take further action on a case for
up to a year after a suspect is bailed, in practice detainees who are
released do not usually face trial unless they are judged to have
re-offended.

Here’s the brief report by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, explaining the official rationale for Ai’s release. There has been widespread speculation in the West that international pressure played a key role in this development. The Guardian’s Branigan notes:

The decision to bail Ai comes days before Chinese premier Wen Jiabao
visits Europe, where leaders were expected to press the case for the
release. It is impossible to know whether the events are connected.
Although China has often released dissidents on the eve of major
political visits, it has not done so recently.

And Edward Wong of the NY Times, in his detailed report on Ai’s release, observes:

Few dissidents who have been detained in recent years have been shown leniency. International pressure so far has not helped Liu Xiaobo, a writer who was given a 11-year prison sentence in 2009 on subversion charges. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last October, which he was not allowed to collect.

As Toner of the State Department suggested in his remarks to the press, the international community needs to exert continuing pressure for more far-reaching human rights reforms in China. Today’s happy event, we hope, will be just a start.

The way this has played out should cause those who oppose Chinese repression (including museum directors and curators) to rethink the conviction of some that applying public pressure to China can only be counterproductive. As I’ve suggested previously, restraining one’s own freedom of expression about China’s curtailment of freedom of expression is simply playing the game by China’s rules.

In the Reuters video, below, showing Ai’s return to “freedom,” we see the usually voluble artist reduced to waving off questioners. “I cannot say anything,” he told reporters who address him in both English and Chinese. “I’m on bail.”

With that, he took shelter from the journalistic barrage and shut the door.

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