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China frees dissident artist on bail

After languishing for more than two months in prison without formal charges, China's most famous dissident artist was abruptly released on bail late Wednesday.

"I'm out. I'm fine," Ai Weiwei wrote in text messages to friends and supporters about midnight after returning to the art studio where he makes his home in northeastern Beijing.

The official New China News Agency reported that Ai had been freed "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from."

The artist, 54, has been reported to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, although he was not known to be seriously ill. More likely the release was a belated response by Chinese authorities to the international reproach that followed Ai's arrest April 3 at Beijing Airport.

While dozens of others have been arrested over the last six months in a crackdown on activists, it was Ai -- by dint of his stature in the art world -- who inspired petitions and demonstrations across the world. In London, the Tate Gallery installed large black letters across its facade reading, "Free Ai Weiwei." In New York, a Cuban artist used a slide projector at night to cast the artist's face onto the Chinese consulate.

Ai had not been formally charged, although the state press reported that his company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., had evaded "huge amounts" of taxes.

In Wednesday night's release, New China quoted police saying that "the decision [to release Ai] comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded."

The wording suggests that Chinese authorities might switch their case against Ai to a civil proceeding, which would allow them to back away gracefully from a situation that has brought great embarrassment.