So Ai Weiwei has been released, sort of. From early reports on Twitter, it seems as though at least some of his staff that had been detained have been released, too (is there any word on Wen, though?). Ai isn’t entirely off the hook, though, he’s out on bail. Or, more specifically:
The news that Ai Weiwei (艾未未) has been released on qubao houshen (取保候审，literally ‘obtaining a guarantee pending trial’, but commonly referred to in English as ‘bail’ despite substantial conceptual and procedural differences) , is excellent news and perhaps the very best outcome that could have been expected in the circumstances of this difficult case.
Qubao houshen (QBHS) 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. Often in such cases a compromise has been reached in negotiation with the suspect, as apparently it has been here. Of course, we will have to hear what Ai says upon release, recognizing that, as part of the agreement and as a consequence of long incommunicado detention, the released suspect is usually subdued in any public remarks made upon release (recall Xu Zhiyong, for example).
Concretely, QBHS usually means that the investigation can continue for up to one year while the suspect is allowed to have freedom of movement, if not freedom of speech, within his city of residence. His travel documents are usually kept by the police and he must seek their permission to travel elsewhere in China and certainly abroad. Often during the subsequent year in such cases, the investigation is quietly dropped so long as the suspect behaves himself in accordance with whatever deal was struck and nothing occurs to mar the agreement.
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.
Interesting stuff. Before we move on to the inevitable question of why he was released (and why now), a few thoughts about the tax evasion charges. First of all, as far as I am aware, Ai has not told anyone other than the police that he’s admitting any sort of guilt, so I would take what Chinese media reports say about his confession with a huge grain of salt until he’s said something himself (which it sounds like he won’t, at least for the next year or so) or until some hard evidence is produced (don’t hold your breath).
As I said in a previous post, Ai was detained on April 3rd, and his studio was searched. Police didn’t return to search his accounting office until five days later, so it’s pretty clear that taxes didn’t have anything to do with the motivation for his arrest.
And while I have no idea whether or not Ai actually did evade taxes — just because they arrested him for obvious political reasons doesn’t mean he didn’t cheat on his taxes — you have to laugh at the idea of detaining someone for over two months for tax evasion in a country where only 2% of the population files income tax forms at all. Granted, a significant percentage of the country is too poor to be required to pay income taxes, but it’s undeniable that the vast majority of people who ought to pay taxes don’t. Without going into too much detail — and I’d like to note here that I do pay Chinese income taxes now — it’s perhaps worth noting that personally, I have had previous employers in high government positions who paid me (and all their other employees) in cash, under-the-table and tax-free. This is very common.
Still, who knows what taxes Ai evaded, or didn’t. He’s not yet saying — probably, he’s not allowed to say — and I highly doubt the government will ever produce any public evidence of anything, so it’s really not worth discussing in any detail. Let’s move on to the question of why Ai was detained.
There are already a number of theories about this in play. For example, there’s the official story:
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.
So there’s that. Then there’s the “Wen goes to Europe” theory, which says that Ai was released ahead of Premier Wen Jiabao’s upcoming trip to Europe, presumably to assure that Wen didn’t have to spend several hours in every country he visits hearing the same “Free Ai Weiwei” message over and over again. Still, for such a high profile arrest, this seems like a rather small reason to release him, no?
More popular — probably most popular right now, at least in the West — is the we-did-it self-congratulatory theory. The idea is that China caved to international pressure on Ai after deciding he wasn’t worth the loss of face and international trouble that Ai’s continued detention was causing. The most convincing example of this theory is Jerome Cohen’s explanation, which also factors in Ai’s own personal connections and his family’s status in China:
The decision to grant [“bail” to Ai Weiwei] has little to do with the rule of law, but everything to do with the untrammeled 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.
Then, of course, there’s the self-important, batshit crazy version of the theory, as evidenced in this ridiculous press release from Change.org in which they take sole credit for Ai’s release. I’ll give you a second to read that, and then a few minutes to stop laughing. Are they sure the Chinese hackers attacked their site because of the Ai petition, and not just because they’re a bunch of pompous jackasses?
Seriously….”victory!”??? I know that’s a change.org thing, but Ai is out pending further investigation. He’s apparently not allowed to speak freely, and probably not allowed to travel freely. Dozens — probably hundreds — of other dissidents, including many from the wave of arrests that Ai caught the tail end of, are still in prison. And there’s no real reason to believe Change.org had anything to do with Ai’s release anyway. So yeah, maybe put that champagne away, guys.
All that aside, I think there’s another theory worth considering here that I haven’t seen espoused anywhere else. Ai’s release, coupled with restrictions that prevent him from giving interviews, talking about politics, or leaving the country, could actually be a fairly brilliant propaganda coup for China. Having Ai free but quiet takes the wind out of the sails of his domestic supporters, and will probably help disintegrate and fracture the dissident community that was essentially built around Ai’s twitter feed. Meanwhile, it also shuts up the international community, who will be too busy patting themselves on the backs (see above) to notice that (a) Ai isn’t allowed to speak or travel freely and (b) there are many, many other dissidents still in prison or being detained for political reasons.
Ai’s release might also be seen as an attempt by the government to gain some control over, or at least temporarily distract from, what seems to be a spiraling mass of stories with much more serious implications: slowing economic growth coupled with rising inflation, embarrassing reports of corruption and hamfisted suppression of everything from independent candidates for China’s eunich legislature to the shuttering of the newly-popularindependent corruption-reporting sites, power shortages, catastrophic flooding, protests, bombings, riots….yeah, I think it’s safe to say that “Fat artists kinda gets out of prison” is a preferable front-page story from the government’s perspective.
In actuality, it’s way too early to be sure how this will play out, or whether or not the restrictions placed on Mr. Ai will be as severe as I have suggested above. In the interim, let’s not forget that even if Ai is 100% free, he was only one of many, many imprisoned dissidents. There is no real victory here, not yet.
(That said, I am very happy to hear that he is safe and with his family, and I hope that things go better than I have suggested they might).