Dissident Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been free to travel since Beijing authorities returned his passport in July 2015. However, Ai was previously banned from foreign travel for four years, after police seized his passport at the Beijing airport during a crackdown on Chinese political activists in 2011. He was detained, allegedly for “economic crimes,” for 81 days. Although Ai is no longer officially under government surveillance, his relationship with Chinese authorities remains precarious. He has since shifted his focus in art and social activism towards Europe’s refugee crisis, traveling to refugee camps in Syria, Turkey, Italy, Israel, and France, and installing art exhibits that bring attention to the crisis.

Case History

Ai Weiwei is an internationally recognized dissident artist and activist, most well-known as the co-designer of the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, and as one of the most prominent and vocal critics of the Chinese government. His art largely focuses on social and political commentary of the Chinese government, and he frequently speaks out on social injustice, the detention of fellow dissidents, and government corruption on his social media platforms. Despite being the son of Ai Qing, one of China’s most famous and revered poets, Ai Weiwei has been repeatedly harassed by the Chinese authorities. 

Case Updates

June 2021: The Great Big Art Exhibition rejects Ai’s conceptual artwork “Postcard for Political Prisoners,” which makes reference to the imprisonment of Julian Assange. The exhibition director cites issues with timing and art form as reasons for rejection; however, in an opinion piece for Artnet, Ai alleges that the rejection was based on the content of his artwork. The 74th Cannes Film Festival similarly rejects Ai’s 2021 film Rohingya, focused on the expulsion of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Ai has now made the film available on Vimeo.

May–June 2020: Ai is selling face coverings decorated with his art on eBay to raise funds for humanitarian organizations.

February 2019: Ai remotely directed a segment for the anthology film “Berlin, I Love You,” yet in the final version of the film, his segment is cut. The film’s producers tell him that they decided to remove his segment after investors, distributors, and other partners raised concerns about his political sensitivity in China. A producer drafted a letter claiming that Ai’s segment was cut for artistic reasons.

October 2015: Ai uncovers several listening devices hidden around his studio and living room.

July 2015: Ai moves to Berlin after spending four years of house arrest in China.

April 3, 2011: Ai is detained by the Chinese government for 81 days, allegedly for “economic crimes.”

November 2010: Ai is placed under house arrest four three days until after his scheduled party to demolish his Shanghai studio.

September 14, 2009: Ai Weiwei is diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage which is believed to be linked to the police attack, and he undergoes emergency brain surgery at a hospital in Munich, Germany.

August 2009: Ai Weiwei is badly beaten by Chengdu police for attempting to testify in the trial of imprisoned dissident writer Tan Zuoren, with whom Ai had worked on an investigation into student casualties of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.