Rule of Law

Who’s on notice: Ai Weiwei or the Chinese government?

(November 16, 2011) A suspect tax notice has launched China’s most famous artist as a cause célèbre yet again but, this time, and significantly, within China.

By Lisa Peryman, Probe International

China’s most famous dissident artist has used donations from supporters to pay a hefty tax bond to Beijing authorities, in order to contest a 15 million yuan bill ($2.3 million) for alleged tax evasion.

Ai Weiwei was able to front up a whopping $1.3 million guarantee thanks to thousands of people who gave money to his cause. The outpouring is a show of opposition to what many see as another attempt by officials to muzzle Ai Weiwei, an outspoken government critic, and justify his 81-day detention earlier this year.

The tax bill was levied on Ai’s design firm, Beijing Fake Cultural Development (a company Ai says he does not own), months after police detention made an international cause célèbre of the artist. Best known as the designer behind the extraordinary Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ai gained recognition of a different sort soon after, calling on citizens to boycott the Games and its false show of unity, stressing the government’s poor human rights record.

Speaking to reporters before paying the tax bond, Ai said he viewed the bill as a politically motivated move to silence his activism and one he vowed to fight. Wearing a T-shirt bearing his likeness on a missing person poster marked ‘Found’ – in reference to his earlier confinement – Ai said:

“It’s more or less like I was a hostage half a year ago, now I paid the ransom and I feel I have been robbed.”

The notice from tax authorities has launched Ai as a cause célèbre yet again but, this time, and significantly, within China. In attempting to crack down on one of their most persistent critics, officials may have instead mobilized a nascent people power movement. According to Zhang Haining, a volunteer helping to sort the flood of donations, “If everyone makes their small contribution, I think it can become a powerful force – one that is fearless.”

One donor when asked about her contribution, summed up the mood of many, “We are all very clear on what has happened, but yet no one has done anything about it,” said Li Zhe, a 36-year-old manager who dropped off 40,000 yuan at Ai’s compound. “So my purpose in doing this is that I am doing something.”

China Academy of Art researcher Zhang Yaojie, who is close to the dissident movement in China, said the government was “losing face” over the tax notice and “must regret its decision” to fine Ai:

“It didn’t anticipate the strength of society’s reaction in this Internet age.”

Ai Weiwei, often described as a master of the Internet, currently enjoys a following of around 110,000 Twitter followers. He latched onto the medium after being invited to write an online celebrity blog in 2005. Ai quickly realized the communication potential of the Internet which also allowed him, to some degree, to circumnavigate censorship by authorities.

The public pitch-in followed an earlier announcement by Ai’s mother and brother, stating their intention to mortgage the former residence of Ai’s father, the poet Ai Qing, to raise capital. Prominent supporters leapt to Ai’s aid, urging fans via Twitter to send money. An Alipay account (a Chinese version of PayPal) was created to collect wire donations, which have also arrived in novel forms: cash folded into paper airplanes and stuffed in envelopes (the more traditional Chinese stuffed theirs in red), and bills wrapped around fruit, have sailed into the yard of Ai’s home in northeastern Beijing; money has even been left in the feeding bowl for his cat.

Although there is a danger that Ai’s list of donors, which includes political activists, may provide the government with a Who’s Who of people they should keep an eye on – most of the donations have come from thirtysomething supporters – there is no doubt the tax cloud over Ai has given citizens a sense of power in numbers.

“I was quite surprised, I didn’t expect it to turn out like this,” Ai Weiwei told Reuters news agency. “We always think that China is a plate of sand. That’s a description of this society, you can never hold it together. That’s why it gives a dictator the best way to pick up a person like me.

“The government hates this the most. They want patriotism, they want to see the nation’s glory that is higher than any individual’s efforts.”

The state-run Global Times newspaper called the donation campaign an example of ‘illegal fundraising’ but Ai, a wealthy man, maintains it’s not about the money.

“Yes, I am very wealthy, but this is a separate issue. I have said that I will repay every cent of the loans. One person’s innocence is tied together to a country’s innocence. I’m not doing this to profit myself.”

More recently, Global Times dismissed foreign media coverage of Ai Weiwei saying dissidents like him enjoyed little domestic support and had been surpassed by China’s rise:

“The real public opinion cannot be suppressed. In the past 30 years groups of ‘Ai Weiweis’ surfaced and then fell. China has risen and contrary to their predictions, is constantly taking shape,” the newspaper said in its Chinese edition, adding somewhat darkly, “that they were eliminated from this great trip is the real social trend.” Although, it did more recently admit that “some donors say they see the donation as an act of voting” in a country with no real elections.

Ai Weiwei is using his current run-in with authorities to make another political statement.

“I hope that when society looks at me, they’ll remember that I’m not an individual case,” he said. “Many people don’t understand why they can’t be with their children, they aren’t able to see the people they want to see. Their voices will never be heard,” he said, referring to other dissidents, detained by authorities.

Ai and his team of lawyers now have two months to prepare an appeal against the tax bill.

An update to this story:

Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei balks at paying $1.1-million tax fine

Further Coverage

Ai Weiwei blasts tax evasion charge

Ai Weiwei’s paper planes

Ai Weiwei tackles tax bill, with Chinese help

Ai Weiwei turns tables on China’s Communist regime

China: Ai Weiwei’s mother to mortgage her house to help son

Defying Beijing

Supporters cross China to visit Ai Weiwei

Watch: Donations still pouring in for Ai Weiwei

Worldview: China’s Wen Jiabao, Ai Weiwei find the courage to speak out

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