Ai Weiwei, the acclaimed Chinese artist who ran afoul of the government for, among other things, criticizing its response to a massive 2008 earthquake, announced Wednesday that authorities have returned his passport.
Ai posted a photo on Instagram his bearded self holding his People’s Republic of China travel document. “Today, I picked up my passport,” he said.
While it is not yet known where Ai may take his first foreign trip, the new passport should allow him to attend a September showing of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain.
Because of his travel ban, Ai was unable to attend showings of his work in the United States in recent years, including a 2014 exhibit in Miami and another that launched later that year at San Francisco’s Alcatraz prison.
Ai, who designed Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Olympics, was once in the good graces of China’s ruling Communist Party. The son of a revolutionary poet, he was held out as a symbol of China’s emerging hip creative class – the Andy Warhol of his generation.
But as his fame grew, Ai became increasingly outspoken against what he saw as China’s oppressive and backward policies. Most notably, he mounted a campaign to investigate corruption and shoddy building practices in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of students and other people died.
He built a huge social media following – both on Chinese sites and ones blocked in China, such as Twitter. But in March 2011, police detained him for 81 days as he was preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong. His passport was taken away.
Later that year, authorities ordered Ai to pay a $2.4 million penalty for unpaid taxes. Claiming the charges were politically motivated, the artist paid off part of the penalty with the help of supporters, including one who threw a bag of cash over the wall of his Beijing studio.
Unable to travel, Ai had to supervise the installation of his elaborate sculptures and artworks from afar. For the Alcatraz exhibit, he had to pack up and direct transport of a five-ton sculpture called “With Wind,” which consisted of solar cookers used by Tibetans, who have long resisted Chinese rule.
Also for that exhibit, Ai and his helpers used tiny Lego bricks to create images of imprisoned or exiled rights activists from 33 countries, including China and the United States. The exhibit, which ran for seven months until late April this year, sold nearly 900,000 tickets, according to the For-Site Foundation, which sponsored the show.
Earlier that year, one of Ai’s exhibits in Miami sparked an international debate about artistic and political vandalism. The exhibit, at the Pérez Art Museum, included one of Ai’s vases and images of the Chinese artist smashing a vase, to show the fragility of his country’s culture.
On Feb. 16 that year, an artist from the Dominican Republic, Maximo Caminero, visited the showing and smashed one of Ai’s vases, stunning other visitors and museum officials.
At the time, Caminero said he broke the vase to protest the exclusion of Miami artists at the Pérez Museum and others in the city. He later apologized, and as part of a plea agreement in August, he agreed to pay restitution and stay away from the Pérez for 18 months.
On Wednesday, supporters worldwide cheered Ai’s new travel freedoms. For several years, supporters have posted “Flowers for Freedom” photos on Twitter to campaign on his behalf.
“After 600 days, @aiww has his passport returned by the Chinese govt – congratulations from us all,” the Royal Academy of Arts posted on Twitter.
Others, including Human Rights Watch, congratulated Ai Weiwei but noted that many other activists, including Tibetans, are restricted from leaving the country.
In Beijing, there have been recent signs the Communist Party is taking a looser approach toward Ai, if not other dissidents. In June, the artist was allowed to open a exhibition of his works – noticeably nonpolitical pieces – at a gallery in the city’s 798 arts district.
Partly because of Chinese censorship, Ai may be more famous outside of China than inside. Even so, some netizens on Wednesday offered their well wishes on Weibo, part of the nation’s tightly controlled social media.
One, however, offered a more cynical post, questioning how much Ai had to pay to get his passport back.
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth