The appearance Ai Weiwei made on Thursday morning in front of his studio was a very brief one. The Chinese artist told the waiting journalists that he was well, but that he could not talk about his experiences in recent weeks. The conditions imposed on him by the police prohibited him from doing so, he explained. "I can't say anything, please understand," he said, before disappearing behind the high brick wall around his property. The intelligence officials who usually hang around in front of the studio were not there.
On Wednesday evening, Ai, who is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, was unexpectedly released from detention. He had to pay bail but did not appear before a judge.
On April 3, police detained Ai at Beijing airport and held him at an undisclosed location. Relatives and lawyers were kept in the dark about Ai's fate for a long time before it was revealed that the authorities were accusing the artist's company, "Fake Cultural Development," of evading taxes on a "large scale."
Beijing police did not follow correct procedures in the case, ignoring deadlines and bending the rules. It is unclear whether such a long period of detention without access to a lawyer is even permissible under Chinese law in the case of an alleged tax offense. At the very least, it seems disproportionate under the circumstances.
On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Ai's release but said it could only be "a first step." The accusations against Ai had to be investigated "transparently and according to the rule of law," she added. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described Ai's release as a "huge relief for the artist and his family."
Damaging China's Reputation
The arbitrary arrest sparked worldwide protests and may have damaged the reputation of the Chinese government even more than the 11-year prison sentence handed down to Liu Xiaobo, a philosopher and co-author of the "Charter 08" reform manifesto who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Ai Weiwei, with his signature shaggy beard, has a much higher profile around the world than Liu and is arguably China's most famous living artist. Few people were convinced by the accusations of tax evasion. It seemed more likely that Ai was being punished for being a thorn in the regime's side.
Although Ai is once again being allowed to live at home, that does not mean he is free. A trial against him can be started at any time. Nevertheless, the legal farce raises the question of why the Beijing police suddenly released Ai after three months of treating him like a traitor.
As so often in China, there are no clear answers. One possible explanation is that the investigators failed to collect enough evidence to allow them to obtain a formal arrest warrant and place him directly in pre-trial detention. Admittedly, lack of evidence does not necessarily stop the Chinese authorities from putting someone behind bars. It cannot be ruled out, however, that prosecutors initially refused to press charges against Ai.
Another possibility is that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wants to deflect criticism of human rights abuses in his country ahead of his trip to Europe, which begins this weekend and which will include "political consultations" in Berlin, London and Budapest. This explanation seems unlikely, however, given that China's economic strength has given Beijing enormous self-confidence, allowing it to ignore criticism.
It could also be that Ai is a pawn in a political power game. The Chinese Communist Party will choose a new politburo at its 18th National Congress in 2012. Perhaps hardliners in the communist party, who have tolerated Ai's stunts and criticism for years, wanted to use the artist's arrest to demonstrate how they will deal with nonconformists in the future. It could be that moderate forces, who feel it makes more sense to send Ai into foreign exile or even tolerate him in the country, have prevailed in the meantime.
It cannot be ruled out, either, that the police may soon detain Ai again. It is possible, however, that the prosecutors and Ai have reached a compromise. That might involve the artist paying a certain sum, with the police in return dropping the tax evasion charges or closing the case after a while.
By kidnapping Ai, the Communist Party certainly managed to achieve one thing: It has deeply intimidated human rights activists. Dozens of activists have suffered similar fates to Ai in recent months, being abducted, interrogated or threatened. According to the latest information, the civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong has been missing again since Wednesday. Liu Xiaobo's wife, Liu Xia, is still under house arrest. The blind civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng was recently beaten in his own home, according to his wife. Since his release from prison last September, he and his family have been harassed and kept isolated from the outside world.
Supporters of Ai Weiwei will now be hoping that the European politicians who will be hosting Wen -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- will clearly condemn the actions of the Chinese government instead of being satisfied with the usual empty words.