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Ai Weiwei back at his studio (image via

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been released, as has his cousin Zhang Jinsong, but that doesn’t mean the story is over. Ai’s legal case is still open, China is still detaining and jailing dissidents and the Ai’s freedom may just be political image clean-up for the government. What does the release actually mean?

In the bullet points below, I outline what the results and consequences of Ai’s release might be. The truth is that we’ll probably never know why exactly the artist was released, or if he is actually free from political harassment. Only time will tell. These are the questions that we’re currently facing, while the situation remains in an uneasy limbo.

Ai is safe, but is he actually free?

We know that far before Ai’s arrest, the artist’s studio was being monitored by police and his movements were tracked. In the past, Ai has been stopped from leaving China or leaving Beijing, in particular during the destruction of his Shanghai studio. Under the conditions of his “bail” (see Jeremy Cohen’s quotes for details), Ai is not allowed to leave Beijing or speak to reporters, a fact that has been born out by the first video released of Ai’s return to his studio. So Ai is out of jail and currently out of harm’s way, but what limits remain on his freedom?

Will the detainment stop Ai’s art making?

Following up on the question of how Ai remains restricted is the issue of how the arrest, detainment and release will impact Ai in the future. Will he still be making art work? In the past, Twitter was a major part of Ai Weiwei’s output; it doesn’t appear likely that the government would allow him to continue. It would seem that given the “cooperative” release by the Chinese government, that the government would most like Ai to pretend that nothing happened; to go back to some measure of life as usual. But if regular art making is what the Chinese government wants as a reassurance that Ai is safe, healthy and “free,” will the artist actually accede to that? Could not making any art become a form of political protest?

Was the release just good PR for China?

The Atlantic Wire suggests that one reason for Ai’s release may have been to clear the air before Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao visits Hungary, Britain and Germany, all countries that have spoken out against the artist’s arrest (in particular Germany). Did international pressure and the threat of bad political blood actually work? The Guardian says that the timing was coincidence rather than cause and effect, but it seems too close to be entirely by chance. Why was Ai released, and what was the motivation?

Has China actually backed down?

Ai is the most internationally known of a group of Chinese intellectuals, artists, lawyers and writers who have been arrested and detained by the Chinese government, and they show no signs of stopping. On the same day that Ai was released, activist Zhi Yongxu was “taken away by police over the struggle for equal education rights for students with foreign hukou accounts.” Ai’s associates also remain under arrest, though Zhang Jinsong was just released yesterday, reporter Wen Tao, accountant Hu Mingfen and architect Liu Zhenggang have yet to be heard from. So can we actually expect any different behavior from Beijing?

What’s next?

The only conclusion is that we don’t really know what’s going to happen after Ai’s release. As there was no legal backing to the arrest and detainment, so there is no necessary morality or logic to the government’s behavior in the aftermath of the release. We know that Ai Weiwei is currently home safe, though he is not allowed to leave Beijing without permission. We know that he is not allowed to speak with reporters about his arrest and detention. But we don’t know if the Chinese government will stop being quite so paranoid about dissidents or actually allow any greater degree of freedom of expression. Actions speak louder than words; we’ll just have to see what happens in the coming weeks and months.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...