Why China Released Ai Weiwei

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Now that dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is free from jail and home with his family, it's time to start the potentially endless process of wondering what his release means for China, the artist, his fellow democracy activists, and the international art world. Since his release a few hours ago, Ai hasn't had much to say to the press. His interview with the New York Times seems about standard for his media interaction today:

Mr. Ai was reached on his cell phone shortly before 12:30 a.m. Thursday. “I’m released, I’m home, I’m fine,” he said in English. “In legal terms, I’m — how do you say — on bail. So I cannot give any interviews. But I’m fine.”

But if Ai himself is staying quiet, plenty of commentators aren't. Here are some of the perspectives being offered online as to the meaning of Ai's release. 

Wen Jiabao is looking to save face in Europe. Shortly after Ai's release, Amnesty International issued a statement in which its Asia Pacific deputy director Catherine Baber called Ai's release a "tokenistic attempt to deflect mounting criticism" before Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao visits several European countries where Ai has a large following. The Associated Press also included this theory in its report: "Ai's release might also have been a face-saving move, coming just days before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was due to travel to Hungary, Britain and Germany, countries where supporters of the artist have been vocal in their condemnation of his detention.

International pressure actually worked. China does not like to appear weak, and appearing to be moved by the outcry over Ai's detention would have done so. But it also doesn't want to risk its ever-rising international clout over the treatment of one dissident. In a blog post for The Telegraph, Peter Foster quotes Human Rights Watch's Phelim Kine: "Without the wave of international support for Ai, and the popular expressions of dismay and disgust about the circumstances of his disappearance, it’s highly unlikely the Chinese government would have released him.” Foster extrapolates:

I think that is a correct assessment. This is not to say that China can be easily hectored or bullied, but those who argue that highlighting egregious cases like Ai Weiwei’s is “counter-productive” (that’s usually code for “inconvenient”) have seen that argument weakened tonight.

Some say that China, with its additional clout and importance in the world, now feels it is above responding to such pressure, but arguably the exact opposite is true. The more credible China wants to be and the bigger the say China wants in world affairs – in everything from Libya’s future to the leadership of the IMF – then the greater the pressure must be on China’s leaders to conform, in the long term, to basic international norms.

In fact, releasing Ai could be considered a sign of strength. Well-known China expat blogger Richard Burger writes in his Peking Duck blog, "Well, apparently China has bitten the bullet and humiliated itself. Maybe global outrage really can work, at least in high-profile cases like this. To me, this biting of the bullet makes China look better, at least a little bit, than if they’d kept Ai Weiwei hidden away under lock and key. It is less humiliating for China than appearing weak and terrified by an activist artist."

It could be a distraction from other activists still in detention. Amnesty's Baber was quick to point out that Ai is by far not the only democracy activist detained in China. "It is vital that the international outcry over Ai Weiwei be extended to those activists still languishing in secret detention or charged with inciting subversion," she said. A spokeswoman for German chancellor Angela Merkel echoed the sentiment in an interview with Bloomberg News. "Ai's release on bail can "only be a first step," Steffen Seibert said. "Now the charges against Ai Weiwei must be explained in a legal and transparent manner." The same article quoted Human Rights Watch's Asia advocacy director, Sophie Richardson: " 'If the Chinese authorities have decided to release those with chronic illness' or those who have exhibited 'good attitude,' 'we have a long list of others' who qualify."

For all his dissenting views, Ai is a pretty good PR vehicle for China. U.S. museums show more and more Chinese work and exhibits by artists like Ai attract big crowds. A statement calling for Ai's release [pdf] issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors made that point explicitly:

We members of the international arts community express our concern for Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to "soft power" and cultural influence.  

This goes back to the idea that China is looking out for its international image. If a museum were to show Ai's work while he was in prison, it would naturally be seen as a referendum on China's human rights record. Now it's just a well-attended art show.

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