Police return passport to Ai Weiwei

BEIJING • Police gave Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei his passport back yesterday, four years after it was confiscated, he said, hailing the move with a smiley emoticon.

Mr Ai is China's best-known contemporary artist abroad, but the authorities have denied him a passport since 2011 in an apparent attempt to limit his global influence.

The burly, bearded conceptualist was detained for 81 days in 2011 amid a nationwide crackdown on dissent, with the authorities continuing to hold the travel document after he was released. But Mr Ai yesterday posted a photo of himself clutching a red Chinese passport online, with the words: "Today, I received a passport."

Police told him: "This is yours, we are returning it to you," he told AFP.

It came 600 days after he started protesting over the issue by placing flowers in a bicycle basket outside his Beijing studio, leading to a long-running social media hashtag #flowersforfreedom. Mr Ai has continued to exhibit his works overseas despite being unable to travel; last year he designed a huge installation on the former prison island of Alcatraz near San Francisco.

Mr Ai's outspoken criticism of China's ruling Communist Party has seen his work censored domestically. But last month the authorities allowed his first solo exhibition in the country to open in Beijing.

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

But his outspoken criticism of China's leaders - he has referred to them as "gangsters" - and involvement in controversial social campaigns made him a thorn in the government's side. It is unclear whether having a passport means Mr Ai will be able to travel freely.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline 'Police return passport to Ai Weiwei'. Print Edition | Subscribe