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Freed Ai Weiwei silenced and still followed by Chinese authorities

On his first day of freedom, the outspoken government critic said he cut his own hair.

Ai Weiwei: Happy to say hello but unable to speak.
Ai Weiwei: Happy to say hello but unable to speak.
Image: Ng Han Guan/AP/Press Association Images

OUTSPOKEN ARTIST AND government critic Ai Weiwei talked about giving himself a haircut Thursday but said little else in his first day out of detention, living under a gag order that underscores concerns about China’s growing use of extralegal methods to muzzle dissent.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Ai was released from nearly three months of detention late Wednesday after confessing to tax evasion and pledging to repay the money owed.

His family denies the allegations and activists have denounced them as a false premise for detaining an artist who spoke out against the authoritarian government and its repression of civil liberties.

The Foreign Ministry said the conditions of Ai’s parole require him to report to police when asked and bar him from leaving Beijing without permission for one year.

A ministry spokesman did not mention the gag order, but ever since his unexpected release, Ai has told the foreign reporters thronging the gate to his suburban Beijing workshop and home that he is not allowed to talk.

On Thursday, he emerged from the doorway with freshly cut hair and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his name in giant black letters.

“I cut my own hair, looks more spirited,” he explained in Chinese. But he said he couldn’t give any interviews or say anything about his case. “Of course, it’s great to be home.”

In a sign of Ai’s continued appeal among some Chinese, several supporters showed up outside his compound Thursday, despite a police presence. Two Chinese men pasted posters, one in English and other in Chinese, that read “I love you Ai WeiWei” to the door of his compound.

In a phone conversation, Ai’s wife Lu Qing, said Ai had been forbidden to discuss conditions of his detention and release and was being followed by plainclothes officers whenever he left the house.

“It may take a few days to get back to reality,” said Lu, who with Ai’s mother had been called to pick him up from a police station on Wednesday afternoon.

Internationally renowned for mocking, satirical art, the 54-year-old Ai became the highest profile casualty in a spring crackdown to stop Chinese from imitating the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Dozens of rights activists, lawyers and others have been detained, put under house arrest or disappeared, and several of those who have been released have kept almost totally silent ever since.

Like some others detained, formal charges against Ai have never been announced.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular press briefing that Chinese investigators alleged Ai ”evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents.”

Beijing-based rights activist and lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said Ai’s detention was “politically motivated, and so is his release. The whole incident is only ‘legal’ in appearance,” said Pu, a friend of Ai.

Ai’s detention put a famous face on the crackdown the authoritarian Chinese government has vigorously pursued with little regard for China’s laws. The U.S. had urged the release of the former New York resident, as did other Western governments.

Ai fearlessly challenged the government before his detention. He blogged and Twittered constantly on subjects including the deaths of students in shoddily built schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; children killed or sickened by tainted infant formula; and a deadly high-rise fire in Shanghai that killed 58 and was blamed on negligent workers and corrupt inspectors.

He had also kept an informal tally on Twitter of people who disappeared into police custody.

Ai’s Twitter account has remained dormant since his release. The last posting is from April 3, just before he disappeared.

- AP

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