Ai Weiwei Released on Bail; Xu Zhiyong Reportedly Detained

Xinhua reports that Ai Weiwei has been released on bail in recognition of his cooperative attitude and chronic illness:

The Beijing police department said Wednesday that Ai Weiwei has been released on bail because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.

The decision comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded, police said.

The Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., a company Ai controlled, was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents, police said.

From The Guardian:

Ai’s younger brother Ai Dan told the Guardian he had no information on his brother. The artist’s wife and mother could not be reached immediately and Ai’s phone remained switched off.

NPR’s Louisa Lim, however, reported on Twitter that:

Ai Weiwei’s mother Gao Ying said she’d only heard about his release through the media, no idea when he’d be back. “We won’t sleep tonight”

…and:

Ai Weiwei’s mother Gao Ying said she didn’t want to comment on Ai’s confession until she’d talked to son, and seen his condition

Further details will be posted as they emerge.

Update: Independent confirmation of Ai’s release has come, first from his lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, who tweeted “I sent Ai Weiwei a text message at 11 o’clock. He just replied: he’s out!” Liu also stated (via Louisa Lim) that tax evasion need not carry criminal liability as long as due taxes are repaid.

Ai has arrived back at his studio, apparently looking thinner than before.

ITV’s Angus Walker pointed out that the release comes on the eve of Wen Jiabao’s trip to Germany and the UK; it might therefore have been intended to set a favourable tone for the visit.

There is no news of other missing members of Ai’s circle.

Update: The Telegraph recounted a carefully guarded conversation with Ai following his return home:

“I’m out, I’m back at home,” Mr Ai told The Daily Telegraph by phone, his voice notably softer than before his incarceration, “please understand, however, that I cannot accept interviews”. Asked how he was treated while in detention, Mr Ai again deferred to his bail conditions, but hinted that there were no imminent court proceedings against him. “I am out on bail for one year, that is all I can say,” he added.

Asked whether his bail would also prevent him using Twitter – a medium he used prolifically before his arrest – Mr Ai only managed a tired laugh, repeating apologetically that he was unable to speak further.

The New York Times provides more detail on Ai’s legal situation, as well as current photographs of the artist:

“Bail” is the shorthand commonly used as an English translation of the Chinese term “qubao houshen,” which means obtaining a guarantee pending trial [but see Siweiluozi's proposed alternative translation, "obtaining a guarantee pending further investigation"]. It generally means that prosecutors have decided to drop charges against a suspect on certain conditions, including good behavior, and subject to monitoring during over a period of time during which charges could be reintroduced.

“This is a technique that the public security authorities sometimes use as a face-saving device to end controversial cases that are unwise or unnecessary for them to prosecute,” Jerome A. Cohen, a scholar of the Chinese legal system, said in an e-mail. “Often in such cases a compromise has been reached in negotiation with the suspect, as apparently it has been here.”

Mr. Cohen said Mr. Ai’s release “is very good news and perhaps the very best outcome that could have been expected in the circumstances of this difficult case ….”

Mr. Cohen said the circumstances of “qubao houshen” usually meant that the detainee had agreed to limitations on his or her behavior, and that the case could be quietly dropped if the detainee adheres to that agreement and other compromises made. Legally, the police can continue to pursue the case for up to one year. During that time, the suspect is allowed freedom of movement, but the police generally hold on to the person’s travel documents.

Cohen discussed the situation at greater length on the U.S. Asia Law Institute site:

It is important to remember that, although the announcement claims Ai has “confessed his crimes”, no formal charge has ever been made against him; he was apparently not even formally arrested” (逮捕), not to mention indicted (起诉). Ai has thus not had to plead guilty to any crimes, although the term “renzui” (认罪), or admitting guilt, has been used in the press report. He can end the tax obligations by payment with interest, and perhaps a fine, as the press report says he is willing to do.

The decision to grant QBHS has little to do with the rule of law, but everything to do with the untramelled exercise of discretion enjoyed by Chinese authorities. This outcome makes clear that great international public pressure plus significant domestic and personal guanxi (关系, connections) can be a potent combination even in the case of someone who went further than anyone before him in openly thumbing his nose (and other body parts) at the Communist regime. Undoubtedly, Ai’s star talent, his family history and global support from the artistic community helped a lot.

An article in the Guardian was dismissive of suggestions that Ai’s release deliberately coincided with Wen’s Europe visit:

“I think the timing is one of coincidence rather than a deliberate signal,” said Roderic Wye, a China analyst from the Chatham House thinktank. “In the post-Tiananmen days, there was the occasional high-profile person released, but usually before a US presidential visit rather than a trip to Europe, with all due respect to our leaders. The whole point for China is: we don’t give in to pressure these days, China is big enough to make its own decisions without taking foreign pressure into account.”

Elsewhere at the Guardian, however, Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin placed greater weight on the role of international pressure:

“His detention was political and his release is political. It is the result of a huge domestic and international outcry that forced the government to this resolution … I think Beijing realised how damaging it was to hold China’s most famous artist in detention,” he said.

Amnesty International similarly noted the timing, along with the continuing detention of Ai’s associates and the risk that his release might lead into a long and harsh period of house arrest like that of Chen Guangcheng.

“His release on bail can be seen as a tokenistic move by the government to deflect mounting criticism.” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia Pacific.

“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.”

Amnesty International is calling for the immediate release of Ai Weiwei’s four associates Wen Tao, Hu Mingfen, Liu Zhenggang and Zhang Jinsong, who all disappeared into secret detention after Ai was detained ….

“While Ai Weiwei’s release is an important step, he must now be granted his full liberty, and not be held in illegal house arrest as has been the pattern with so many others recently released from arbitrary detention.” said Catherine Baber.

In keeping with the “one out, one in” pattern of releases and detentions, Beijing human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong has now been detained, according to Weibo reports. Xu has recently been quoted in connection with China’s independent candidate movement, having successfully run for the People’s Congress in Beijing’s Haidian district in 2003. He has been involved in an extremely wide range of issues, most recently the pursuit of equal education rights for students regardless of their hukou status. From a 2009 LA Times article published following an earlier detention in 2009:

Xu’s law firm was one of the few in China willing to represent the parents of the nearly 300,000 children sickened and the six who died last year as a result of dangerous milk additives.

Since its founding in 2003, the firm, also known as Gongmeng, has not shied away from sensitive topics. It challenged China’s secret detention centers, the so-called black jails, after a 27-year-old graphic designer who was arrested for failing to carry his identification card died in custody. Xu represented an editor of the hard-hitting newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily who was arrested in 2004 on what were widely seen as politically motivated bribery charges.

This summer, Xu’s firm joined the chorus of voices opposing a requirement that all computers sold in China come preinstalled with software that would filter out pornographic or controversial content.

But Xu is by no means a dissident, preferring to work within a system he has hoped to improve, not overthrow.

Xu’s organisation, like Ai Weiwei’s, was accused of tax evasion, but the charges collapsed last August. Read more about Xi Zhiyong via CDT.