Ai Weiwei is back home in his gray brick studio complex in Beijing, but that hardly means he's free. After 80 days of detention in an unknown location with no formal charges brought against him, he has been released on bail, having "confessed to tax evasion and destroying documents," according to Chinese news agencies. His first words to reporters meeting him at his doorstep gently informed them that he cannot give interviews. For the next year, he will be carefully watched, unable to leave Beijing, most probably unable even to tweet, until his case is finally resolved.
The Chinese term for Ai Weiwei's status is “guobao houshen,” literally meaning “obtaining a guarantee pending trial.” This is “excellent news and perhaps the very best outcome that could have been expected in the circumstances of this difficult case,” posted international human rights lawyer Jerome Cohen after the release. It allows the Chinese government to save face and retain control over the artist, while he remains free and unindicted for the next year. Ai Weiwei will have to pay back taxes and perhaps pay a fine -- his family has maintained his innocence -- but he will probably avoid a prison sentence.
This result is remarkable, given the widespread arrests that have taken place this year, as China has tried to insure control against a "Jasmine Revolution" like the widespread unrest in the Middle East. Four of Ai Weiwei's colleagues that were picked up at the time of his detention are still missing, though they may soon be released. Thousands of others remain unaccounted for. "The past 18 months have set China back 20 years," Phil Tinari, editor of LEAP magazine, said to me when we met in Hong Kong during the art fair in May.
Many are citing Ai Weiwei's release as proof of the effectiveness of the international campaign undertaken to protest his detention. Kudos must go out to the museums -- Tate, Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society -- that launched a massively successful petition, gathering over 140,000 signatures online. I was surprised that these institutions took a stand at all, given their widespread dealings in China and their usual cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Anish Kapoor's refusal to loan to a show at the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art, which earlier this year had cancelled an exhibition of Ai Weiwei's work, was a prime example of steps an individual artist could take in protest. In turn, politicos including Hillary Clinton and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke out on behalf of the artist.
While the Chinese government is usually immune to such pressure -- just look at the case of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who remains in detention -- it is telling that Ai Weiwei's release came just days before Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's trip to Europe. He was sure to be met with cries of outrage over the artist's situation. Certainly, Chinese officials wanted to avoid such embarrassment.
But in the current situation, China is in a win-win position. On my recent trip to Beijing, I found that the official smear campaign, tainting Ai Weiwei with charges of tax evasion, had already done its damage. Many artists told me that they did not want to comment on the artist's "troubles," and some accepted the very Chinese belief that this artist, perceived in the west as a hero, is a maverick who deserves what he gets. Only a few would admit that probably every famous artist in China could be charged with tax evasion, with many working on schemes to shield their millions from the government's coffers. Not one leading artist of the older generation -- not Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan, Cai Guo Qiang or Zeng Fanzhi -- spoke out on Ai Weiwei’s behalf. Xu Bing, a MacArthur Foundation prize-winner and now vice chairman at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, who many think aspires to be China’s next minister of culture, openly said that he was not interested in politics when asked to comment on Ai Weiwei's case.
Only among younger artists, those born after 1980, many of whom look up to Ai Weiwei, did I find support for the belief that he had been framed, with the charges trumped up to silence him and his incessant agitation on Twitter. Ai Weiwei had a huge Twitter following of over 60,000 in Chinese, though the site is not available in China. Younger artists know how to get around the Great Firewall and get access to his tweets. Though they might not have the courage to engage in social activism themselves, they certainly appreciate Ai Weiwei's stance. In the days after his detention, hundreds of young artists changed their profiles on Weibo, China's equivalent to Facebook, to a picture of Ai Weiwei in a gesture of solidarity. Hugo Boss Prize nominee Cao Fei, who currently has a show at Lombard Fried in Manhattan, was one of the few Chinese artists to sign the petition asking for his release.
But despite Ai Weiwei’s release, it is not the time for western institutions -- many of whom are now preparing to capitalize on the artist’s fame with exhibitions, some impromptu, some years in the works -- to back off from pressure on the Chinese government. American museums, anxious to secure loans or to ship shows to China, have too often worked side-by-side with the Ministry of Culture. Much of this cooperation has accompanied the belief that quiet diplomacy could liberalize the situation in China. But too often, as with the British Museum’s recent decision to eliminate nudes from a show on world culture going to the National Museum of China in 2012, western museums have exercised self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the Chinese.
I, for one, am not calling for a boycott of China, which I believe would only result in a return to the isolationism of 30 years ago. Chinese artists deserve to see exhibitions from the west and we have also benefited from loans from the PRC to the United States.
But it is time to reexamine cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, especially in light of Ai Weiwei's current situation.
Hans Ulrich Obrist has declared that Ai Weiwei's online activism is his form of social sculpture and his most potent form of art making. If so, now is not the time to lessen the pressure to restore his freedom to communicate with the world. While museums from Asia Society to the Hirshhorn plan Ai Weiwei exhibitions of his photographs and sculptures, we cannot ignore that his online oeuvre -- the least marketable and institution-friendly aspect of his work -- is being silenced. Until now, western museums have rarely demanded that the Chinese respond to calls for freedom of expression. With the case of Ai Weiwei, such a demand is unavoidable. If this aspect of Ai Weiwei’s fight is ignored, all the Western museum exhibitions amount to little more than a pile of sunflower seeds.
BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).