What’s Next for Released Artist Ai Weiwei?

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Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei speaks to reporters outside his studio in Beijing on June 23, 2011. (Photo: Peter Parks / AFP / Getty)

After reports emerged last night that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had emerged from nearly three months of detention, his friends and supporters waited for a characteristic declaration that the news was true. A tweet perhaps, for his 88,000 followers? But his Twitter account remained dormant, the last message posted on April 3, the day he was stopped by police at the Beijing airport.

Instead, he told reporters who called and others who waited outside his studio that he had been released. “I’m ok. I’m out,” he told me by phone on Friday morning. “I didn’t sleep a lot last night because I was too excited.” He then declined an interview, citing a one-year period of bail. Given what he has experienced—81 days confinement in a an undisclosed location with only one highly restricted visit from his wife and the threat of a long prison term—it’s not unsurprising that the dissident artist has not easily slipped into his old habits. But it is jarring nonetheless that a man who seemed to decline no interview request can now accept none, and who tweeted his seemingly every thought and movement has been muted online.

The state-run Xinhua news service reported last night that Ai had been released “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes” and also due to his suffering from a chronic disease. Beijing police had previously said that Ai was under investigation for “economic crimes,” including tax evasion. Beijing Fake Cultural Development, a company connected to the artist but apparently listed under his wife’s name, “was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents,” according to the Xinhua report.

But as the legal scholar Jerome Cohen notes in a blog post on Ai’s release, “no formal charge has ever been made against him; he was apparently not even formally arrested, not to mention indicted.” Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer and friend of Ai who has spoken to him twice since his release yesterday, says he is unclear what the report means by saying Ai has confessed. “Tax evasions should be investigated by the tax bureau, but the tax bureau hasn’t given any conclusions as of today,” Liu told TIME. Cohen writes that conditions under which Ai was released are described as “bail” in English, but the Chinese term qubao houshen differs markedly in practice:

Concretely, QBHS usually means that the investigation can continue for up to one year while the suspect is allowed to have freedom of movement, if not freedom of speech, within his city of residence. His travel documents are usually kept by the police and he must seek their permission to travel elsewhere in China and certainly abroad. Often during the subsequent year in such cases, the investigation is quietly dropped so long as the suspect behaves himself in accordance with whatever deal was struck and nothing occurs to mar the agreement.

The terms of Ai’s agreement have not been made public. Liu says that while the law doesn’t expressly bar Ai from granting interviews or using social media, he acknowledges the possibility that police have imposed additional conditions. According to the law, Ai should be able to continue working, Liu says. “But in reality, I don’t know,” he says. Such a method of release “is a technique that the public security authorities sometimes use as a face-saving device to end controversial cases that are unwise or unnecessary for them to prosecute,” according to Cohen. He writes:

The decision to grant QBHS has little to do with the rule of law, but everything to do with the untramelled exercise of discretion enjoyed by Chinese authorities. This outcome makes clear that great international public pressure plus significant domestic and personal guanxi (关系, connections) can be a potent combination even in the case of someone who went further than anyone before him in openly thumbing his nose (and other body parts) at the Communist regime. Undoubtedly, Ai’s star talent, his family history and global support from the artistic community helped a lot.

Some observers have raised the possibility that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s upcoming trip to Hungary, the U.K. and Germany may have influenced the decision to release Ai. But the practice of China freeing some prominent dissidents ahead of meetings with global powers has faded in recent years as China’s international clout has grown. Indeed, even while Ai recovers at home as a somewhat freer man, the situation of four of his friends and colleagues who were also detained in April is even murkier. So far there has been no word about the possible release of Wen Tao, a journalist who researched documentaries with Ai, driver Zhang Jinsong, accountant Hu Mingfen or designer Liu Zhenggang.