Examining Ai Weiwei’s release through the mainland blogosphere

Ai Weiwei outside his home in Beijing.

This piece was originally published on CNN.com, International Edition and can be viewed here.

Chinese bloggers battled through targeted internet censorship Thursday in the wake of dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s release after nearly three months in police custody.

According to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, Ai was released after he admitted to charges of tax evasion and promised to repay the whole amount owed. It added that he was subsequently freed “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.”

Though there is still no indication of whether he was formally charged or tried, Ai’s release comes with a caveat: a year-long probation that prohibits him from leaving Beijing without special permission from the Chinese government.

“I’m sorry I can’t talk,” Ai told a group of reporters and sympathizers who gathered in front of his home and studio in Beijing hours after his release. “I am on probation, please understand.”

On Sina Weibo – a Chinese microblog with strict censorship guidelines – words with the slightest linkage to Ai are currently banned, including “release,” “AWW” and “the fat guy.” The phrase “love the future,” which looks and sounds like his name in Mandarin, has also been blocked.

Despite the restrictions, bloggers in China have found ways to express their disdain for the conditions Ai was held.

“They couldn’t prove he did anything wrong and it isn’t good to just ramble, so they said he committed tax evasion,” @Gelsomino wrote on Sina Weibo.

Additionally, Internet users in China continue to have problems when searching his name via web browser or blogging their views about the terms of his release.

“Why can’t I even type in “going home” now. I didn’t really say anything sensitive. Sina do you have to be so scared?,” @Agina1106 posted, in reference to censorship on Sina Weibo.

Another from @MaryNextDo0r referenced China’s newest propaganda film, the “Founding of a Party,” to describe the Ai ordeal.

“The whole country is in shock since your imprisonment,” the post read.

Most Sina Weibo users wrote that they were “waiting,” “celebrating” or “staying up for good news” since last night.

Ai was seized April 3 while planning to board a plane to Hong Kong and later accused of economic crimes, a move that prompted international condemnation and added to criticism over China’s controversial record on human rights.

His family members have insisted that he is innocent and human rights groups maintained the incarceration was an attempt to silence a prominent critic.

Still, some users touted the release as a victory for China’s freedom of speech movement.

“The man whose name can not be mentioned is released! One less dissident in the prison, one more daring artist in the world,” user ‘Laodao99′ wrote on the mainland China-based Tencent microblog.

This view was echoed by various human rights groups, none of which were particularly satisfied with the conditions of Ai’s release.

Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said she felt Ai was released for reasons other than admitting to tax evasion.

“The Chinese government’s decision to arrest Ai Weiwei was political, and so is his release,” Richardson said in a Human Rights Watch release. “But it is also an example of how international pressure works, since Beijing was paying a high cost to its reputation for his detention.”

Despite Ai’s much-anticipated release, four of his associates are still missing, and are presumed to be “in secret detention,” according to Amnesty International.

CNN’s was blacked out in Beijing whilst broadcasting Ai Weiwei release. No immediate comment was given from the Chinese government regarding the outage.

CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz, Shao Tian, Xiaoni Chen and Eve Bower contributed to this report.

About bmgottli

Benjamin Gottlieb is an investigative reporter, photographer and multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Growing up alongside highway 101 in Sherman Oaks, California, Gottlieb got his start in journalism as the assistant editor of his high school publication, the Knightly Times. Gottlieb received his B.A. in Global and International Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2009, with an emphasis on Middle Eastern socioeconomics and politics, and a minor in Multimedia Writing. During his time at UC Santa Barbara, Gottlieb spent three years as a staff reporter and news editor for his school’s daily newspaper, the Daily Nexus. Gottlieb took First Place for Best Feature Story of 2007 in the California College Media Awards for his piece detailing a weekend with the school’s Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps. Gottlieb has interned at both the Santa Barbara Daily Sound and the award-winning alternative weekly, the Santa Barbara Independent. He remains a contributing writer for the Independent, and has published pieces on offshore drilling, prison reform and the 2009 California budget crisis. Gottlieb is currently a Director’s Scholar at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, pursuing a Masters of Arts in Online Journalism. He is also the senior news editor for USC Annenberg Digital News, a reporter for USC Annenberg Radio News and contributes to Patch.com through the One Square Mile project, an experiment in hyper-local reporting.
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