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Outspoken Chinese Artist Released On Bail

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

One of China's most famous activists disappeared three months ago. Artist Ai Weiwei, who is renowned for designing the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics,�is now back home. The Chinese government says he's still being investigated for tax evasion, so many wonder what's next for the artist, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM: It was almost midnight when a car drew up in front of Ai Weiwei's studio, and Ai himself stepped out. After 11 weeks in custody, his famously rounded belly was substantially smaller, the bear of a man diminished. He's heard here speaking to a British journalist.

Mr. AI WEIWEI (Artist): I cannot talk. I'm so sorry.

Unidentified Man #1: Ok.

Mr. WEIWEI: Please understand. Thank you so much.

Unidentified Man #1: What about the conditions you were held under? Can you say anything about that? Are you OK?

Mr. WEIWEI: I'm fine. I'm perfectly fine.

LIM: I'm now outside Ai Weiwei's house, and the gates are shut, and there's a big sign pasted on this gate saying: I love you, Ai Weiwei. There's a huge surveillance camera opposite, which is trained on the house. But there's no obvious sign of people monitoring it at the moment.

There are, however, lots of journalists here, and even an enterprising street vendor who's come to sell English-language art books and water to the waiting media. Everybody's waiting to see if Ai Weiwei will come out today.

His friend, lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, says the type of bail he's being held under often carries restrictions.

Mr. LIU XIAOYUAN (Attorney): (Through translator) According to the law, people in his situation need permission if they want to leave their city - in his case, Beijing. Getting bail in this way doesn't mean that the case won't be pursued. The authorities can still continue in their investigations.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: International pressure, like this protest in Hong Kong, may have been one factor behind Ai's release. But the Xinhua news agency cited his good attitude in confessing to his crimes, and vowing to pay back any taxes he'd evaded. But human rights groups say this case was clearly based on his political activism. Nicholas Bequelin from Human Rights Watch says it highlights an official disregard for the rule of law.

Mr. NICHOLAS BEQUELIN (Human Rights Watch): We're at an all-time high in terms of repression, and the government is broadly trying to redefine the limits of expression. And we're seeing a departure from even the promise of legal reform and the rule of law.

LIM: Many of China's other activists have been following developments avidly online. Among them is Zhao Lianhai, who's been campaigning for children sickened by fake milk powder. He was freed from prison on medical parole six months ago, and like Ai Weiwei, sent home. But the home life he describes is still far from free.

Mr. ZHAO LIANHAI (Attorney): (Through translator) I've had guards in my corridor the whole time. After returning home, I was restricted in all kinds of ways. If a government keeps cracking down on these people with a conscience, that will erode our morality in every way.

LIM: Ai Weiwei's art has always been intertwined with politics. Drawing the official boundaries may prove difficult, according to Alison Klayman, who's shooting a documentary about the artist.

Ms. ALISON KLAYMAN (Filmmaker): Will this mean that he's going to spend time on art? Are they going to restrict his travel? I mean, whether he's going to be able to live the life that he led before, of creation, of collaboration and of engagement with the rest of the world. And where on that spectrum are they going to limit things?

(Soundbite of song, "Knocking on Heaven's Door")

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door.

LIM: One example of his flamboyant political showmanship was this party he threw to celebrate the forced demolition of his Shanghai studio by the authorities. Through events like this and online activism, he's aimed a torrent of criticism at the government. Now many are waiting expectantly to see whether Ai will begin tweeting again, or if China's most outspoken critic has truly been silenced.

Louisa Lim, NPR news, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.