Ai's silence speaks volumes about China's anti-dissent campaign
BEIJING (Reuters) - For a man who has made his name for bold, outspoken art and words, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been curiously silent since his unexpected release from more than two months of detention.
Speaking to foreign reporters gathered outside his studio in a northeastern Beijing suburb on Thursday, a slightly thinner and tired-looking Ai said simply his health was "very good."
"I can't give any interviews because of the situation that I am in, please understand that," he said, before scurrying back inside.
His brief appearance speaks volumes about the government's success at silencing a man who had been a thorn in its side with his bitingly satirical art and criticism of contemporary China.
"It's obvious they are neutralising him -- that he's not allowed to say anything about his case," said Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law at New York University.
"He has lost his freedom to criticise that has made him world famous. It's a very sad situation. On the other hand, for him, it's better than continuing in detention and facing what could be a very long sentence."
The Foreign Ministry said Ai remained under investigation for suspected crimes and was not allowed to leave his residence, suggesting the government will keep up the pressure to prevent him from speaking out.
Analysts say Ai's release is far from a signal of a policy shift by the ruling Communist Party. Authorities have muzzled dissent with the secretive detentions of more than 130 lawyers and activists since February, amid fears that anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world could trigger unrest.
"It would be foolish to take Ai's release as evidence of a change of mind," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch. "The government is still engaged in a broad effort to redefine and lower the limits of expression in China and you still have a huge number of people who have disappeared who are facing security charges or prosecution."
Most activists who have recently "disappeared" have been prevented from speaking out after being released.
"There were a few conditions," said rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, referring to the terms of his release after he was seized in February by security officers and held for two months.
"In any case, accepting your interview is already flouting my promise," Jiang, a lawyer who has challenged the party, said by telephone. It was "not convenient," he said, to elaborate on the other conditions.
With Ai's release, the government has cast its apparent backdown as a vindication of its case. Xinhua news agency said Ai was freed "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from."
Repeated telephone calls to Ai's wife and sister, who previously were willing to discuss his case, went unanswered.
The decision to release Ai, who had a hand in designing the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, came just days before Premier Wen Jiabao heads to Europe, where Britain and Germany have criticised Ai's detention.
Ai has spoken out on everything from last year's award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo to Internet curbs.
The foreign ministry has said Ai, 54, is being investigated on suspicion of economic crimes, but police have issued no formal notice to explain why he is being held. Ai's family says the allegations are an excuse to silence his criticism.
In releasing Ai, some say the party appears to be placating those critics.
"As we saw international support piling up for Ai Weiwei, it became quite clear that a release on bail would be possible," Bequelin said. "China was literally haemorrhaging soft power because of this case."
While activists welcomed Ai's release, they were under no illusions that the crackdown on dissent was over.
"Things are not looking good in the short term," said Pu Zhiqiang, a rights lawyer. "It's probably sensible he doesn't say too much. He has been out of touch with the rest of the world for 80 days."
Outside Ai's studio, two men, who did not identify themselves, appeared briefly on Thursday holding signs reading: "I love you, Ai Weiwei" in English and Chinese. They declined to answer questions.
Unlike many activists who labour in relative obscurity at home, due in part to pervasive media censorship, Ai is a widely recognised and popular figure in China.
"Some people may think his methods were inappropriate, but they are the heartfelt aspirations of the Chinese people," said a music student who only gave her family name of Li.
"I hope the government can be more open and tolerant to these extreme remarks or expressions."
(Additional reporting by K.J. Kwon; Editing by Ron Popeski)
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