Chinese dissident artist and free speech advocate Ai Weiwei says that authorities in Beijing returned his passport on July 22, more than four years after it was confiscated following his 81-day secret detention.
Ai, 58, says via telephone that police from the Exit and Entry Bureau, which issues passports to Chinese citizens, called him on that morning to collect his passport, which he now has in hand.
The surprise move comes amid a deepening crackdown on civil society in China.
With his passport he should now be able to attend a retrospective of his work at London's Royal Academy of Art in September.
His non-attendance would have generated unwanted negative headlines about China in Britain a month before President Xi Jinping is due to visit.
Ai says he is now legally allowed to travel outside China, but that will depend on whether other countries will issue him visas.
"I'm not surprised because in reality, they've said they would return me my passport for many years," says Ai. "They've never said they would never give it to me, except that it has dragged on for four years."
The Ministry of Public Security, which runs the Exit and Entry Bureau, did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Since the start of Ai's travel ban, supporters in the West have called on their governments to lobby the Chinese government to return Ai's passport to him.
Because of the ban, Ai has not been able to attend teaching engagements and exhibitions in Germany, the US and England.
In 2011, Ai was detained without any charge and held mainly in solitary confinement, sparking an international outcry. A court later upheld a US$2.4mil (S$3.3 million) fine against Ai for tax evasion.
The world-renowned artist maintains the charges from the tax evasion case were trumped up in retaliation for his criticism of the government.
Ai says he's not sure why authorities have decided to return his passport now, but he took it to mean "there aren't any problems".
He also says that government surveillance on him has eased substantially and that he is confident the authorities would allow him to return if he leaves. "Now that they've let me go abroad, I believe they will let me return home," he says.
Ai says the first country he would want to travel to is Germany, where he would like to have a medical check-up and visit his son, who has been living in Berlin for 11 months.
600 days of flowers
In November 2013, the artist started protesting his travel ban by putting flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside his Beijing studio and home. On Twitter, he said he would do it every day until he "regains the right to travel freely". On July 22, he said it had been 600 days.