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Dissident and artist Ai Weiwei said Thursday that he has been forbidden from leaving China, despite the lifting of strict bail conditions imposed after he was released from detention last year. This comes a day after a hearing on his tax evasion case, which he was prevented from attending.
A frisson of excitement ran through the staffers at his Beijing studio as Ai returned from the police station with the notice marking the end of the restrictions. They were put in place after he spent 81 days in detention, and his company was subsequently charged with tax evasion — he says in retribution for his activism. Ai himself is somewhat nonplussed by the end of his bail term.
"I have a sense of [the] ridiculous," he told NPR, "because it's like you find something you never lost."
He's allowed to leave Beijing, though he has no immediate plans to travel. But he says he's not allowed out of China.
They didn't return my passport, I just realized that. And they didn't return my computers.Ai Weiwei
"They didn't return my passport, I just realized that," Ai said. "And they didn't return my computers. You know, because for subversion of state power, they want to try to find every trace. But they can't find anything, I guess. I mean, they owe me to say sorry. But of course they would never do it. It's over, but it's never totally over. You are still not allowed to go abroad."
He still could face police investigation for other suspected crimes, including pornography, bigamy and illicit exchange of foreign currency. But it's not clear whether police will pursue the cases.
On Wednesday, a Beijing court heard Ai's challenge to tax authorities demanding almost $2.5 million in back taxes. Ai was ordered to stay home, so he missed the eight-hour-long hearing. He said the court did not allow his lawyers to read the existing evidence, submit new evidence or call witnesses. Ai noted the irony of a public hearing in which the defendant wasn't allowed to attend and the public seats — all five of them — were occupied by people paid to be there.
"Those five seats they assigned to their own people," he said. "After three hours, these five people, they completely have no interest in case. They ask can they leave, 'We didn't know it would last for so long.' And the court tells them that no, you cannot leave, you have to stay here until the case finishes and we'll pay extra money for it. So they just take a nap in the court."
So far, there has been no verdict from the hearing.
The 54-year-old artist shot to prominence through his work, his activism and a new documentary about him, Alison Klayman's Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. His influence is such that Art Review named him the most powerful artist in the world.
"Ai's activities have allowed artists to move away from the idea that they work within a privileged zone limited by the walls of a gallery or museum," Art Review said of its decision. "They have reminded his colleagues and the world at large of the fact that freedom of expression is a basic right of any human being. In the process, Ai has promoted the notion that art's real context is not simply 'the market' or 'the institution,' but what's happening now, around us, in the real world."
Ai's life and art are intertwined, but he claims to have no clear mission or purpose. "I really react to life," he said. "I'm in the middle of the stream. I don't know where this flows to, but certainly I'm in there. I'm very wet. ... I feel cold, I feel bumping from the rocks, but I enjoy that, but let's see how far it can go."
For the past year, Ai has been trapped inside the fishbowl of the Chinese security system, with teams of plainclothes police sitting outside his gate and at the end of his road. They follow him everywhere he goes. Ai tried to take control of that by installing webcams inside his own home and bedroom, but he was ordered to take them down. He estimates there are at least 100 people monitoring him.
"There's eight people doing a shift, but that's only one aspect," he said. "If I go to park, I can see people taking photos through bushes. My phone is tapped. If I make a move, I have to announce to police station. Sometimes different cars follow you."
Ai believes this emphasis on maintaining stability — whatever the cost — highlights the government's lack of ideology. And he sees his court case as illustrating its lack of respect for the rule of law.
This inveterate blackjack player knows the deck is loaded against him, but he said he'll keep going: "We [will] still try to fight. Because we are fighting for dignity."