Ai Weiwei Freed Amid Harsh Crackdown in China

Gallery: Artist Ai WeiWei Freed David Gray / Reuters-Landov

It was his most closely watched performance, and it was an uncharacteristically quiet one. Ai Weiwei, China's most famous artist and political dissident, emerged from imprisonment after 11 long weeks a notably subdued soul. He tried to break the tension, as he returned to his Beijing studio, telling reporters he had cut his own hair because it was "more energetic." But there was no masking the toll his time inside had taken. He was skinnier, haggard, the fear evident in his eyes. Muzzled by a one-year gag order, he declined to describe his ordeal. In several conversations with NEWSWEEK, he said he didn't know if he was truly free. "There shouldn't be a trial, but then again: Who knows?" he said. Asked if he'd been mistreated during his imprisonment, he paused, then replied: I really can't say anything. Sorry."

With an impending European visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Ai's release served a strategic purpose and came after weeks of intense international pressure. Both Britain and Germany had lobbied vociferously on Ai's behalf; on the façade of the Tate Modern museum in London, huge letters spelled out "Release Ai Weiwei," and at the recent art fair in Basel, Switzerland, visitors perused avant-garde artwork, wearing paper masks of his face. "They just had to free him," says a European ambassador to China, requesting anonymity. Otherwise, "this would have been a trip about Ai Weiwei and nothing else. Ai's political outspokenness, revealed in interviews, Twitter feeds, and sought-after artworks, continually riled Chinese officials. "What can they do to me? Nothing more than to banish, kidnap or imprison me," he wrote on his blog a few years ago. "Perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air, but they don't have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both joy and the ability to fly." In April, security agents arrested the artist just as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong, having already demolished his Shanghai studio earlier in the year. His wife, Lu Quing, and several studio assistants were taken to a police station for questioning.

While some in the media rushed to proclaim Ai's release on June 22 evidence of a Chinese thaw, the truth is that China's persecution of dissidents and political enemies of the state hasn't been this ruthless in decades. A Western diplomat in Beijing called recent months "a game-changer," and this spring, the United Nations took the unusual step of issuing a press release expressing concerns over China's "recent wave of enforced disappearances." In part, the intensifying repression signals concern among Chinese apparatchiks that, inspired by the Arab revolutions, people's demand for political rights will grow. With a powerful "security faction" now ascendant in the Communist Party, at least 500 people have been detained in the past four months alone, observers estimate. Chinese officials have also severely curtailed press freedom, apparently disrupted Internet and mobile-phone service, and gone after human-rights lawyers in a campaign of torture and disappearances. An Amnesty International report states that, consequently, only "a few hundred out of a total of 204,000 lawyers risk taking up human-rights cases."

Few political prisoners in China get the benefit of the kind of international attention bestowed on Ai; most disappear inside prisons, gulags, or "black jails"—under "house arrest" in squalid hotels or under lock and key in psychiatric institutions. In this dystopian world where prisoners have little legal counsel, medical care, or contact with the outside world, deaths behind bars are not uncommon.

One advocacy organization, the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, recently published a list of credulity-defying explanations by officials including death by "being handed toilet paper," by "playing hide and seek," and by "face-washing." The autopsy of one inmate, who reportedly died after "squeezing pimples" on his chest, revealed that a sharp instrument had penetrated his chest and heart. A 19-year-old woman held in a Mongolian labor camp was said to have died "from ectopic pregnancy"; her relatives saw bruises and signs of apparent sexual assault on her corpse. And a man, who supposedly died from "drinking hot water" last year, had had his testicles crushed and his nipples cut off, according to relatives. Those who survive and try to report the abuse are often caught in an Orwellian system where officials in charge of investigating the allegations are the very officials in charge of running the prisons.

Prominent writer Qi Chonghuai, who suffered beatings and threats by security officials during the four years he spent in jail after exposing corruption and government malfeasance, was sentenced again on the same charges this spring. Weeks before his scheduled June release, he was told he'd have to spend the next eight years behind bars. His wife is haunted by nightmares. "Guards get prisoners to beat other prisoners—they call it 'playing hide and seek,' and someone gets beaten to death," she says. "He is just a frail journalist, how can he bear such beatings?"

Not since 1989, when the army fired on protesters near Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds and rounding up thousands of others, has political repression been this intense or security officials behaved with such impunity. In April, for example, authorities reportedly put as many as 1,000 Protestants, including some pastors, under house arrest in Beijing and Inner Mongolia to prevent them from congregating. "This is the worst period that we've seen in more than a decade," says Phelim Kine, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The government has thrown the rule book out the window, and is now relying on plainclothes thugs."

When Liu Anjun began organizing people who hadn't been fairly compensated for expropriated land several years ago, the government sent two thugs to kill him in an attack that left him wheelchair-bound. Undaunted, Liu rallied supporters online, drawing tens of thousands of people to the cause, including Ai, who donated money. Last year, the police came for Liu. At first he was taken to a place in the mountains; then a hotel south of Beijing. Although he wasn't physically abused at first, the police ensured that after his release he'd still be trapped—they cut the circuits in his car. In February, the police came again. After a violent confrontation, during which Liu and another volunteer for his organization, Sunshine Community, as well as a 74-year-old woman, were severely beaten, he was taken away to a house in the mountains for interrogation. After a few days he was released, only to be rearrested. During interrogation, Liu was asked to identify other political activists in pictures and video, and when he refused, the officers deprived him of sleep for days. Weakened by the lack of sleep and a hunger strike, Liu spent several days in hospital afterward. "Western countries still have an illusion about China, about the human-rights dialogue," says Liu, whose home is under police surveillance. "We have no place to run," he says. "China is a one-party dictatorship."

Of course repression and brutality are nothing new. After the communist revolution, landlords were systematically killed across the country. A decade later, tens of millions died from starvation as Mao Zedong, the country's leader, implemented his disastrous economic reforms; millions of others faced systemic repression, torture, and murder. But after Tiananmen Square, an increased focus on economic growth appeared to supplant the government's focus on counterrevolution; international travel restrictions were eased and efforts were made to strengthen laws and protection of human rights. The changes clearly remain fragile and subordinate to the party's ultimate objective: to remain in power. "When you go public and suggest some political reform, the cage comes down," says Charles Freeman, a Washington-based analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

As an internationally prominent artist and son of modern China's most famous poet, Ai was considered immune until his detention on charges of tax evasion. But as one government official put it, "This case shows that everyone must be accountable for misdeeds, no matter who you are." Gao Wenqian, a former Communist Party official who fled to the U.S. after the Tiananmen Square massacre, believes Ai is not really free. "You can say that Ai Weiwei was transferred from a small prison to the prison outside," Gao says. "It's like there's a sword over his neck, and if he continues to criticize the Chinese government, that sword will come down." As a condition for his release, Ai can't leave Beijing without permission and is not permitted to grant interviews for a year—a gag order that extends to Twitter, where the artist has more than 88,000 followers.

Although he appears to have been silenced, words from his past still echo. "In China, there is a long history of the government not revealing information, so it's difficult for the Chinese people to ever know the truth," Ai wrote in an essay for NEWSWEEK in November 2009, describing his severe, life-threatening beating at the hands of the government. "What does it matter if China's economy grows when there are no basic protections for its citizens?"

With R. M. Schneiderman and Mike Giglio