It's a relief to see artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been released after about three months of detention, though it's still not quite clear what has transpired to lead to this relatively happy ending.
Jerome Cohen professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University school of Law gives some clues of what may have happened. Ai was released on qubao houshen (取保候审) which literally means "obtaining a guarantee pending trial" and the closest English term is "bail".
"Qubao houshen is a technique that the public security authorities sometimes use as a face-saving device to end controversial cases that are unwise or unnecessary for them to prosecute," says Cohen on the NYU US-Asia Law Institute website. "Often in such cases a compromise has been reached in negotiation with the suspect, as apparently it has been here. Of course we will have to hear what Ai says upon release, recognizing that, as part of the agreement and as a consequence of long incommunicado detention, the released suspect is usually subdued in any public remarks made upon release."
With qubao houshen Cohen adds, the authorities can still investigate Ai for a year and his travel documents are held by the police and he must seek permission to travel within China and definitely abroad. The investigation could be dropped, Cohen says, if the suspect behaves and follows the agreement without any hitches.
Technically Ai was not formally charged with tax evasion so he has not pleaded guilty though he "confessed" to the crime.
What this three-month saga has demonstrated is that the Chinese authorities have no qualms in disappearing people at will and under whatever pretext it wishes. But it also shows in Ai's case that his star status, guanxi and public pressure does help.
Another is the on-going battle between the hardliners and the liberals at the upper echelons of the leadership. The hardliners probably got Ai arrested in the first place, but in the end there wasn't much evidence to formally charge Ai of anything or so the liberals said and eventually he was released.
We'll have to see how the next few days of freedom play out for Ai. So far he isn't saying much which means some kind of deal was struck and he'll probably stick to it -- for at least a year.