Artist and social activist Ai Weiwei was released on Wednesday after being detained by the Chinese government for almost three months. Authorities cited his confession to tax evasion charges as the reason for his release.
On April 3rd of 2011, Ai Weiwei was taken into custody by Chinese authorities at the Bejing airport. He was on his way to Hong Kong when he was detained. Belongings at his compound, such as papers and his computers, were all seized. Ai's whereabouts were subsequently unknown. The government did not allow Ai to inform his family that he had been detained, nor did they provide the family with notification on their own.
More than a hundred activists, including Ai, have either disappeared, been confined to their homes, or in some way been detained by the Chinese government at the time of Ai's detention. Foreign analysts have said these actions reflect deep concern over unrest in other parts of the world. The Chinese government appears especially concerned over uprisings in the Middle East.
Response to Ai's disappearance was global and aggressive. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation started an online petition calling for his freedom. The petition used the power of social networking to obtain more than 143,000 signatures demanding that the Chinese government release Ai. The campaign to appeal to the government took on momentum quickly among activists who recognized Ai's contributions to the world artistically and socially. Many people, including Ai's family and other human rights activists believed he was detained as an act of retaliation for his political and social activism. These feelings were confirmed when authorities did not alert his family of his whereabouts or even that he had been taken into custody.
The site that hosted the petition advocating for Ai's freedom, Change.org, was attacked in response to the campaign. The IP addresses initiating the attacks originated from China. The FBI was brought in to investigate the widespread assault on the site that resulted in "distributed denial-of-service" errors, slowing down the site and making access much more difficult. Brian Purchia, Communications Director at Change.org stated in an email that the organization received a message from Ai's interim business manager, Chin-chin Yap saying, "Your organization has been amazing with the petition and we thank you very much for your support."
Ai's artistic contributions have been profound. He helped to design Beijing's Olympic Stadium that is known as the "Bird's Nest". The stadium has been touted as an innovative and environmentally friendly structure. Pillonton wrote, "Its green features include a rainwater collection system, a translucent roof that provides essential sunlight for the grass below, and a natural, passive ventilation system."
Socially, Ai has spoken in favor of human rights for many years. In 2005, he started an online blog where he shared everything from social commentary to personal autobiographical information. The blog was shut down by the Chinese government in 2009; however, his publications are still available in print form through MIT Press. In recent years Ai has been an especially contentious figure in China. He won a Chinese Contemporary Art lifetime achievement award in 2008, but the following year he described having been beaten by police after conducting a "citizen investigation" into the casualties resulting from the earthquake that occurred that same year.
Ai's TED Conference video reveals a close look at some of his art and provides insight into his social and political views, described in his own words. In the video, Ai states:
"I'm living in a society which freedom of speech is not allowed. And also it is very hard to find individual expressions through media or though any public territories. So to help the change to help to become a more democratic society you need people who can act, who can give out their opinions, talk to the young people, and who are trying to find a way to encourage people to be involved."
The video also touches on Ai's views of the Internet and its regulation in China. He believes the Internet is a valuable tool when it comes to facilitating social change and allowing people to freely express ideas. Though it is difficult to know for certain what prompted the Chinese government to free Ai, the global campaign demonstrating support of this man and the bold ideologies he expresses, makes a powerful statement on its own.