Ai Weiwei's 'Freedom' Does Not Involve Much Freedom

Among his bail restrictions: the artist can't travel, tweet, or speak to the media

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On Wednesday we learned that China had released dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on bail after almost two months in detention for alleged economic crimes. Now we're learning what Ai's newfound freedom entails: A lot of restrictions, it seems. Here are the conditions Chinese officials have reportedly laid out for the coming year:

  • No interviews with the media: Ai says he can't speak with reporters, but he's done so informally nonetheless. He emerged from his studio on Thursday with a fresh haircut and T-shirt with his name in big, bold letters to briefly mingle with reporters. But he's saying very little of substance--mainly thanking the international community for its support, discussing his meals and lack of sleep, and saying how great it is to be home. Ai has long been a darling of the international media.
  • No tweeting: Ai was a prolific tweeter, but he hasn't tweeted to his nearly 90,000 followers since April 3, the day he was detained. He says he's not allowed to use social media. 
  • No leaving Beijing: A source tells Reuters that Ai can move freely about Beijing but must report his whereabouts to authorities whenever he leaves the house. Hong Lei, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, has confirmed that Ai can't leave Beijing without permission, while Ai's wife, Lu Qing, tells the AP that her husband is followed by plainclothes officers wherever he goes.Filmmaker Alison Klayman informs the Global Post that these travel restrictions strike at the heart of Ai's work: "His art has been shown most often abroad, in Europe, the U.S. and other parts of Asia, and he travels a lot to prepare and install shows. He may not be able to do that."
  • Comply with investigation: Lei explained that Ai must report to police immediately when summoned and refrain from interfering with witnesses or evidence against him. He did not clarify whether Ai is barred from speaking with the media.

China says it's imposing these restrictions because Ai is still under investigation for economic crimes (the authorities haven't formally charged Ai yet but claim he already confessed). The Wall Street Journal, however, is skeptical, noting that the conditions "effectively neutralize [Ai] as a political activist, while appearing to grant him freedom." Chinese law expert Jerome A. Cohen tells the Journal that Ai received a form of bail that Chinese law enforcement officials often use for politically sensitive cases. He doesn't think Ai will face trial if he adheres to the conditions of his release, but points out that the world-renowned artist would need to "reinvent" himself to comply with the terms above. And if he doesn't comply? The threat of renewed detention is ever-present.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.