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Ai Weiwei: China's artist-activist
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) June 22, 2011

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is known as much for his activism as for his art -- a fact that earned the government critic more than two months in detention but a surprise release on bail late Wednesday.

The son of a poet revered by China's early Communist leaders, Ai helped to design the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Games, an event that brought worldwide prestige to the ruling Communist Party.

But the burly avant-garde artist's outspoken criticism of China's leaders -- he has referred to them as "gangsters" -- and involvement in controversial social campaigns have since made him a thorn in the government's side.

Subject to frequent detentions and other official trouble, Ai was detained in Beijing on April 3 while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong. Police searched his Beijing studio and later accused him of massive tax fraud.

In an unexpected turn of events, the state Xinhua news agency announced late Wednesday that he had been released on bail after confessing to his crimes, pledging to repay the taxes he allegedly dodged, and on medical grounds.

Ai, 54, is one of many government critics who have been jailed, detained or disappeared into police custody since February, when calls for anti-government protests in China -- echoing those in the Arab world -- rattled authorities.

Ai's detention is largely in keeping with his public image as government gadfly.

His father, Ai Qing, was a celebrated poet and member of the Communist party who was later denounced and sent to a labour camp. He was subsequently "rehabilitated" and is again revered today.

The younger Ai came to prominence in the late 1970s as a member of an avant-garde group of artists known as "The Stars". He then moved to the United States, where he lived for more than a decade, returning home in the 1990s.

As an artist, probably his best-known project was his collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron on Beijing's striking national stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Ai called the Games a "pretend smile" by China.

But the round-faced, bearded Ai soon fell foul of authorities.

He has written a widely popular -- but often censored -- blog, on which he broadcast his short films, published his photos and wrote often scathing political commentaries. The blog has since been shut down.

"This society is not efficient, it's inhuman in many ways politically," he told AFP in November while under a previous, brief house arrest.

He further riled the powers that be by organising a citizen's probe into school collapses in China's devastating 2008 earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Many believe the collapses were triggered by shoddy construction stemming from official malfeasance or corruption.

At the 2009 Sichuan trial of activist Tan Zuoren, who also investigated the issue and was later handed a five-year jail term, Ai said he was detained and beaten by police to prevent him testifying on Tan's behalf.

He later underwent surgery in Germany to relieve pressure on his brain from a blood clot he said stemmed from the beating.

Even his wide-ranging art forms have courted controversy.

His recent exhibit at London's Tate Gallery included a work involving 100 million porcelain "sunflower seeds" that visitors were meant to walk on, but were barred from doing so last October over fears of inhaling porcelain dust.

In January, his newly built Shanghai studio was demolished in apparent retaliation for his criticism of city policies, and he was blocked from leaving China in December ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo for jailed Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

Fed up with official harassment at home on showing his works, Ai had announced plans to open a Berlin studio just before he was detained.

China has rounded up nearly every prominent dissident or activist in its current crackdown, but Ai, an avid blogger, believes the Internet will eventually break the Communist Party's iron grip on politics and expression.

"The Internet is the best gift to China -- this kind of technology will end this kind of dictatorship," he told AFP in November.

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