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Freedom at the cost of free speech

China's most vocal critic Ai Weiwei tiredly walked out of prison on Wednesday night, a thinner and quieter man. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: Jun 24, 2011 01:31 IST
Reshma Patil

China's most vocal critic Ai Weiwei tiredly walked out of prison on Wednesday night, a thinner and quieter man.

The bearded man, who until his arrest 80 days ago was the most interviewed Chinese celebrity in the foreign media, declined to take questions.

News trickled out at the same time, of the silencing of Chinese anti-corruption websites inspired by the Indian online movement to report bribes. The websites received thousands of hits but survived barely a month in the world's largest Internet community.

Ai's high-profile arrest on allegations of economic crimes came in the thick of Beijing's most widespread crackdown on dissent since 20 years.

His conditional freedom on a year's bail does not signal a great leap for the pro-reform movement in China. Internet and media controls in China are getting tighter as the Communist Party prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary.

In conversation with HT last November, Ai sat at a long wooden table and described his interest in visiting India for the first time, connecting with Indian intellectuals, and campaigning to improve the image of democracy.

"Can I become a citizen of India?'' he had asked. He was not afraid of speaking on record even to praise a political system that Chinese security officials reportedly hold up to dissidents as an example of chaos and inefficiency.

Over 100 more activists remain in detention since early this year. And Beijing has muted its most fearless critic.

"Please understand, I can't give interviews because of the situation I am in," Ai told the media standing outside his studio named Fake.

His last Tweet behind the firewall was on April 3.

The artist-activist was released from jail as Premier Wen Jiabao - the solitary reform voice of the Communist Party - prepared to tour Europe, where political leaders and personalities campaigned for Ai's freedom.

The big question is how long an emboldened community of intellectuals, activists and micro-bloggers can be silenced. "What's the worst that can happen?'' argued a political thinker in Beijing, referring to the jailed Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. "Only 11 years."

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