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Jul 22, 11:21 PM EDT

China returns passport to Ai Weiwei, who plans London trip

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BEIJING (AP) -- Artist and government critic Ai Weiwei has gotten his passport back four years after it was confiscated by Chinese authorities and plans to visit Germany for a medical checkup and to see his young son.

Ai posted an Instagram photo Wednesday of himself holding a Chinese passport with the caption, "Today, I got my passport." Ai's supporters shared the artist's post and cheered the news.

Ai's representative Darryl Leung confirmed the passport had been returned, and said Ai planned to visit Germany, where he will have a checkup and to see his son, who has been living abroad for the last 11 months.

Ai was detained by authorities for about three months in 2011 but not charged. His design firm was later slapped with a $2.4 million tax bill, which he fought unsuccessfully in Chinese courts. The persecution is widely seen as punishment for Ai's outspokenness against the ruling Communist Party and its government. He has long irked Beijing by using his art and online profile to draw attention to injustices in China.

When he was released, he was placed under a travel ban. It was partially lifted in 2012 that allowed Ai to travel domestically, but authorities kept Ai's passport on the grounds that he remained under investigation on suspicion of pornography and illegal exchange of foreign currency. Ai dismissed both charges, and he has not been indicted on either charge.

Chinese authorities often deny passports to dissidents who might embarrass the ruling Communist Party overseas.

Ai's work has gotten much attention worldwide, making him one of best-known Chinese dissidents. His work was exhibited often outside China in the past four years, although he could not attend.

Upset over his passport confiscation, Ai placed a bouquet of fresh flowers in a bike basket outside his Beijing studio and uploaded a photo of the flowers to his Twitter account on Nov. 30, 2013.

He said the daily ritual would last until his right to travel was restored. On Wednesday, he noted it was the 600th day of his floral protest when the passport was returned.

Britain's Royal Academy of Arts said Ai would travel to London for a major exhibition of his work in September. That is a month before President Xi Jinping is to make a state visit to London, and Chinese authorities may have not wanted Ai's absence to make headlines.

"This is wonderful news for Ai Weiwei, his family and for artists worldwide," said Royal Academy director Tim Marlow. "We are delighted to announce that he will be joining us as we finalize the installation of his exhibition."

Ai's work is very popular in Britain. In 2010 he filled a vast hall at the Tate Modern gallery with 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds. Visitors were initially invited to walk or lie on them, but after a few days the ceramic dust was judged a health hazard and the exhibit was cordoned off. It still attracted large crowds.

Before his detention, Ai had spoken out about a number of national scandals, including the deaths of students in shoddily built schools that collapsed during a massive earthquake in 2008.

The government has blacklisted him from any mention in state media, and he is not allowed to post anything on China's social media.

He was also barred from holding exhibits in China, but as a sign that the restrictions might be easing, Ai was allowed to hold his first solo exhibit in Beijing last month. He has held two more exhibits since then, also in the Chinese capital.

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