With more coming out about the exact terms of Ai Weiwei’s release, it’s starting to sound less and less like something to celebrate. Custer from ChinaGeeks says the same thing, and lays out exactly why:
Seriously… ”victory”??? I know that’s a change.org thing, but Ai is out pending further investigation. He’s apparently not allowed to speak freely, and probably not allowed to travel freely. Dozens — probably hundreds — of other dissidents, including many from the wave of arrests that Ai caught the tail end of, are still in prison. And there’s no real reason to believe Change.org had anything to do with Ai’s release anyway. So yeah, maybe put that champagne away, guys.
All that aside, I think there’s another theory worth considering here that I haven’t seen espoused anywhere else. Ai’s release, coupled with restrictions that prevent him from giving interviews, talking about politics, or leaving the country, could actually be a fairly brilliant propaganda coup for China. Having Ai free but quiet takes the wind out of the sails of his domestic supporters, and will probably help disintegrate and fracture the dissident community that was essentially built around Ai’s twitter feed. Meanwhile, it also shuts up the international community, who will be too busy patting themselves on the backs (see above) to notice that (a) Ai isn’t allowed to speak or travel freely and (b) there are many, many other dissidents still in prison or being detained for political reasons.
Ai’s release might also be seen as an attempt by the government to gain some control over, or at least temporarily distract from, what seems to be a spiraling mass of stories with much more serious implications: slowing economic growth coupled with rising inflation, embarrassing reports of corruption and ham-fisted suppression of everything from independent candidates for China’s eunuch legislature to the shuttering of the newly-popular independent corruption-reporting sites, power shortages, catastrophic flooding, protests, bombings, riots… yeah, I think it’s safe to say that “Fat artist kinda gets out of prison” is a preferable front-page story from the government’s perspective.
In actuality, it’s way too early to be sure how this will play out, or whether or not the restrictions placed on Mr. Ai will be as severe as I have suggested above. In the interim, let’s not forget that even if Ai is 100% free, he was only one of many, many imprisoned dissidents. There is no real victory here, not yet.
It’s still good that he’s at least out of a black site and back home, but there’s still a lot more to be done before anyone parties too hard.