Four years after his arrest, artist Ai Weiwei has his passport back

The artist can (possibly) travel again.
The artist can (possibly) travel again.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
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Activist artist Ai Weiwei got his passport back from Chinese authorities on Wednesday, four years after it was confiscated when he was arrested for “economic crimes.”

Chinese authorities seized the outspoken artist’s passport in April 2011, after arresting him as he was boarding a flight to Hong Kong. He was held for nearly three months in conditions he described later (paywall) as “a kind of mental torture,” in a tiny room with guards nearby, and interrogated 50 times.

He was released after 81 days because, Chinese state media said, he was willing to pay the taxes he allegedly evaded. Ai’s family, human rights activists, and other supporters have long said his arrest was politically motivated, because of his criticism of government authoritarianism and censorship. Even after he was released, Chinese authorities retained his passport and forbid him from leaving Beijing, placing him on modified house arrest.

Ai has maintained an active, widespread global presence nonetheless. His  Twitter account has 278,000 followers, despite the fact that Twitter is technically blocked in China, and 111,000 people follow him on Instagram. He held a massive exhibition on imprisonment in Alcatraz (which he could not attend), and organized various social media “events” and remembrances.

In September, Britain’s Royal Academy of the Arts is holding a retrospective of his work that includes 90 tons of metal from the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Now that his travel documents have been returned, perhaps the artist will attend this one.