Jul 23 2015

China Returns Passport To Artist-Activist Ai Weiwei

by Elaine W. Ng & Hanae Ko

Photo by Christopher Doyle for ArtAsiaPacific. Courtesy Ai Weiwei.

On July 22, Ai Weiwei was returned his passport from Chinese authorities, after having confiscated it from him four years ago. The 57-year-old artist-activist posted a picture of himself on his Instagram account—a close-up shot of himself holding his passport, accompanied by the caption, “Today, I got my passport.” 

In a comment to Reuters, Ai noted that he could not elaborate on why the police decided to return it to him now, but that they did not impose “any additional conditions or warnings” for the return of his passport.

New York collector Larry Warsh, an old friend and one of the earliest advocates of Ai Weiwei’s work, happened to be with the artist when his passport was handed back to him. Warsh, who had been in Beijing that week by chance, spoke to ArtAsiaPacific by phone and reflected that “It was a surreal moment when the passport was returned to Weiwei and placed in his hand, because nothing is as simple as it seems in China. I could see in Weiwei that there was a certain sense of caution and disbelief, mixed with joy and excitement. For many months he was thinking that his passport might be returned to him. And for many years he was wanting his passport to be returned to him. The authorities returned it to him a nice, calm way.”

Warsh added, “The return of his passport is a major event because it is not an easy time for many people with opposing views to the government in China.”

In April 2011, Ai’s passport was confiscated when he was arrested at a Beijing airport for allegedly committing economic crimes. His studio was searched by the police, who took away his computers and hard drives and detained several staff members and his wife (though they were all later released). Ai was inexplicably detained for 81 days, which led many prominent figures from the international art world—including New York’s Creative Time and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation—to launch global campaigns and petitions calling for the immediate release of Ai.

Ai was ultimately released in June 2011, but during his detainment he was charged with alleged tax fraud, and upon his release he was ordered to pay a fine of RMB 15 million (USD 2.4 million). Soon after, donations to help support the artist came from all across the globe. In ten days he received nearly RMB nine million from more than 30,000 people, many of whom folded currency bills into paper airplanes and threw them across the walls of Ai’s studio and into the compound. For each donation, Ai created handwritten calligraphy art pieces, which he calls “loan receipts,” as a kind of thank-you-cum-IOU note. Funds raised from the campaign were used for the collateral necessary to submit an appeal against the tax case. The appeal was heard in court in 2012, but was rejected. Though the tax evasion fine was upheld, Ai has stated that he will not pay the remaining amount, because he does not recognize the legitimacy of the charge.

Since his release, Ai’s Caochangi studio in Beijing has been surveilled by the local police, whose unmarked van sits across the street from the compound. Additionally, a video camera is mounted on a nearby telephone pole, focused on the studio’s front door to monitor the people who come and go. In recent years, Ai’s property troubles with the government have also included the sudden demolishment of his Shanghai studio in 2010. Even his Caochangdi compound has been issued an official notice that it would be demolished at an “uncertain” date—though that has yet to be acted upon.

The artist maintains that the arrest, and the acts of harassment prior to and after it, have all been in retaliation for his criticism of the Chinese government. Most notably, in 2008, Ai had spoken out about the Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of children were killed due to the collapse of poorly built schools. At the time, the Chinese government declared that it would publicly investigate the details of the faulty construction, and produce a report on the full extent of the casualties, but subsequently did not follow through on that promise. In response, Ai began to use his personal blog as an online platform for the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, an effort that he led that involved more than 50 researchers and volunteers to collect the names of the students who were killed in the earthquake. It is believed that this project may have led the Chinese government to finally release information on the death toll of students in the earthquake, which they announced as 5,335, in May 2009. Yet Ai’s report—which gathered the names of 5,212 students, of which 3,500 deaths occurred in just 18 of the 14,000 damaged schools—seems to indicate that the government’s data is but a fraction of the actual number. Ai had originally planned to use this data to commemorate the earthquake, but around the time of the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, his blog was suddenly shut down by authorities.

In light of such activities, Chinese authorities have blacklisted Ai from being mentioned in the state media, and the artist is banned from using Chinese social media. Yet Ai remains active beyond China’s firewall, most notably on Twitter and Instagram, where he continues to express his political views against the Chinese government. 

Commenting on the coming future for Ai, Warsh noted, “This will be a new global chapter for Weiwei. There are so many shows that he will finally be able to physically see, and artists really need to be present at these important events.” Among those happening this year include: a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (9/19–12/13); a group exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris, entitled “A Brief History of the Future” (9/24/15–1/4/16), in which Ai and several other artists will present works in dialogue with historical masterpieces from the Paris institution’s collection; “Ai Weiwei @ Helsinki” (9/25/15–2/28/16) at the Helsinki Art Museum, which will focus solely on his furniture work; an exhibition of his “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” sculpture series at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga in Spain (9/16 –12/6); and “Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei” (12/11/15–4/24/16), a show that Warsh helped organize with the Andy Warhol Museum, that will open at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.

Ai Weiwei and long-time friend and collector Larry Warsh at the artist’s studio in Beijing. Courtesy Larry Warsh.