News of Ai Weiwei's release on bail was first reported in China's state-controlled Xinhua news agency on Wednesday. It comes as a huge relief to the cultural community, which has been advocating for his well-being ever since his detainment on April 3rd, 2011.
Statements by Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific deputy director, also suggest that Ai Weiwei's release is "an important step." However, she cautions that he "must now be granted his full liberty, and not be held in illegal house arrest as has been the pattern with so many others recently released from arbitrary detention." Filmmaker Alison Klayman similarly cautions that "Weiwei's legal counsel, Liu Xiaoyuan, did suggest over Twitter that the artist would not be allowed to exit Beijing city limits. And Weiwei himself has stated that he will not be allowed to conduct interviews or use social media for at least 'one year.'"
His release nevertheless confirms the important role that public pressure from the international community has played in insuring his safety and release, and in particular the powerful potential of artistic advocacy to enact meaningful change on a geopolitical scale. We must not overlook the importance of continuing to advocate for Wen Tao and all those others that still remain under detention by the Chinese government, however. As long as Ai Weiwei and other artists and civil society advocates continue to live in fear of disappearance, much work remains to be done.
Advances in social, political, and environmental justice will need to occur in the years ahead, and they will require significant transformations in existing political and economic frameworks. However, these transformations will only be achievable alongside a radical rethinking of art and activism. We hope that a model can be found in the inspiring and inclusive cross-section of individuals and organizations that have come together in the past months to advocate for Ai Weiwei's release—including that of artists, journalists, cultural and civil-society organizations, as well as governments. There is a potential here to construct an extraordinarily powerful and sustained network for artistic advocacy in the months and years ahead that should not be overlooked.
Aaron Levy, Melissa Lam