One of the first words that always came to mind for anyone trying to describe Ai Weiwei - the avant-garde Chinese artist and pro-democracy dissident - was "outspoken." This is, after all, a man whose portfolio includes a portrait of his middle finger extended toward the Forbidden City.
But Mr. Ai's days of speaking out appear to have come to an end, at least for now. The portly, wildly bearded 53-year-old who became an international cause célèbre after his apprehension at Beijing airport, was back at home with his family Wednesday in Beijing after being released on bail after 10 weeks of being held in an undisclosed location.
The man who spoke to The Globe and Mail by telephone shortly after being freed was only a distant echo of his usually bombastic self.
"I'm okay, I'm out, I'm fine now," he said quietly. He said he couldn't say anything at all about where he had been held, how he was treated or why he thought he had finally been punished after getting away for years with his relentless mockery of China's rulers.
"I can't tell [you]anything," he said in response to a question about what had happened to him while in detention. "That's a condition of my release."
A brief report on the official Xinhua newswire said Mr. Ai had been released on bail "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from."
Mr. Ai said he was unable to comment on his supposed confession, but said his health was good.
The report said that a company controlled by Mr. Ai, the Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., "was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents." Xinhua said that Mr. Ai had agreed to pay the money he owes, and it was unclear whether he would still face trial.
Until he was detained and prevented from boarding a flight to Hong Kong on April 3, Mr. Ai was perceived as too famous internationally and too well connected at home to be intimidated or "disappeared" like other dissidents. Apart from his artistic renown - he is the son of one of the country's most famous Communist poets - he was also one of the designers of the "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium.
His arrest generated waves of international criticism and inspired sit-ins by the artist's supporters in Hong Kong, London, Berlin and other cities. In New York, an oversized portrait of Mr. Ai was projected onto the side of the Chinese consulate.
The pressure appears to have worked. Mr. Ai's release comes just ahead of a European tour by Premier Wen Jiabao during which the case could have resulted in awkward questions for the Chinese leader.
However, the fate of four of Mr. Ai's associates who were arrested at his studio on the same day he was apprehended was not clear Wednesday.
Few believed the tax evasion charges were the real reason for Mr. Ai's arrest. He was the most high-profile of several dozen activists, bloggers and human-rights lawyers to be rounded up this spring following a mysterious online call for Chinese citizens to stage a "Jasmine revolution" modelled on the people-power uprisings sweeping across the Middle East. While few actual protesters turned out at the demonstration sites, the authorities responded with a wave of arrests.
Several of those who were detained and later released, including long-time dissidents such as lawyer Teng Biao, emerged saying they - like Mr. Ai - could not speak to media about where they had been, what had happened to them or to criticize the government in the way they had before their detention.
"Bail" in the Chinese context often means a deal has been struck that would see prosecutors drop charges so long as certain conditions are met. The subject is placed under supervision for a period of time, usually one year, during which charges can be reintroduced. However, others worried that something darker than bail with conditions may be quieting party critics.
"These [dissidents]are veteran challengers of the Chinese government, and they are not at all easily intimidated. The fact that as a result of their lengthy detentions and whatever they endured during that period … indicates that the Chinese government has really taken the gloves off in dealing with these perceived sources of dissent," said Phelim Kine, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever tools they've taken out of the toolbox - in terms of silencing these people - have worked."
Other prominent dissidents are still being incommunicado, and in many cases without charge, including Liu Xia, who disappeared shortly after her husband Liu Xiaobo won last year's Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Liu has more than nine years remaining on an 11-year prison sentence for "inciting subversion."