Ai Weiwei returned home today after 11½ weeks in police detention. Uncharacteristically, he would tell reporters nothing. Not about the conditions under which he had been held since being stopped at the Beijing airport on Apr. 3., not about the charges leveled against him, and not about the terms of his apparent one-year probation.

Quite a change for the man who was previously the Chinese art world's most outspoken governmental critic. And quite an opportunity for other interested parties to put their own spin on the event.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the artist was released on bail because he suffers from a chronic disease (reportedly diabetes and high blood pressure) and showed a "good attitude in confessing his crimes." Specifically, he "repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded." The statement alleges that Ai destroyed account records for his design firm, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.

No doubt Chinese authorities would like this to be read as the government cracking down on a financial miscreant, getting the desired legal results and then showing leniency to the grateful, reeducated citizen.

However, Jerome A. Cohen, a well-known expert on Chinese law, told the New York Times that such "bail" (which requires the accused to fulfill various conditions during a period of monitoring) is sometimes a "face-saving device," indicating that a compromise has been reached to avoid a problematic prosecution.

Indeed, Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, claimed in the Guardian that Ai was released due to "a huge domestic and international outcry."

Other observers, perhaps more aware of China's longstanding imperviousness to foreign criticism, note that the new development is far less than a resounding victory for Ai, who seems for the moment at least to be abiding by a gag rule. Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer friend of Ai, tweeted that the artist is free "so long as he doesn't leave the limits of Beijing city." And Amnesty International has called for him to be granted "full liberty," not the house arrest frequently imposed on released dissidents.


AP photo by Ng Han Guan.