After Four Years Detained, Ai Weiwei Given His Passport Back

ai weiwei
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei uses his laptop on March 24 after an interview with Reuters at the hotel where he is staying in Beijing. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

"Today, I got my passport." It's a phrase that dissident Chinese performance and visual artist Ai Weiwei has been waiting to deliver for four years, since he was detained and barred in 2011 from traveling outside of Beijing. Ai confirmed via an Instagram selfie on Wednesday, scarlet passport in hand, that Chinese authorities had granted him permission to leave the country once again.

Ai attempted to fly from Hong Kong to Beijing four years ago, only to be detained and held for 81 days for "vague charges of economic crimes, kept in isolation and submitted to Kafka-esque interrogations," on which Newsweek reported back in 2011. Eventually, he was charged and prosecuted for tax evasion, and his design studio was said to owe the government $2.4 million in back taxes and penalties for "economic crimes." He attempted to fight the hefty bill in court, albeit unsuccessfully, and had his passport taken away.

Additionally, Ai was forbidden from exhibiting his pieces in China until last month, which saw the first display of his controversial work. In the past, Ai has spoken out against his detainment and said the case was likely related to his politically charged artwork and documentaries, which have often critiqued political infrastructures and national disasters, notably leading the charge to dig into a government corruption scandal after 5,000 students in poorly constructed classrooms perished in a 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

As The Associated Press notes, authorities in China have been known to deny people their passports if there is a risk that the Communist Party could be potentially ridiculed outside the nation.

While he was prohibited from posting any status updates via Chinese social media and had his name censored by the state media, Ai continued to put together exhibitions and collaborate with artists globally, including a recent exhibit at Alcatraz in San Francisco. One of his forthcoming projects, Berlin, I Love You, analyzes the strain that long distances have placed on his relationship with his partner and his child, who both currently live in Germany.

As for why he unexpectedly received his passport, Ai isn't sure himself. He was simply told to go to the border control office, where he was given his red passport back and a verbal confirmation that he was allowed to travel abroad again, according to the Los Angeles Times. "I only can say, Why not? They have promised for the past four years to give it back. They always say it's in the process, but I just need to be patient," he told The New York Times.

Now with his passport in tow, Ai mentioned that he is angling for a visa. He is scheduled to travel to London, where his art is extraordinarily popular, for a retrospective exhibition of his major works at the Royal Academy of Arts in the fall. The academy launched a Kickstarter campaign last week to bring a large-scale installation of Ai's notable reconstructions of dead trees, which he gathered from southern China's mountains.

Ai's support system stayed loyal to him throughout his detainment, from the activists behind Free Ai Weiwei, to supporters helping him raise the funds he purportedly owed the government via Google Plus, to people throwing paper airplanes filled with money into his compound. "It's beautiful to know that people still have the desire to speak out," he said in an interview with Newsweek upon his detainment.