Faced with a $2.4 million tax bill, Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has begun to receive money from thousands of supporters in China—a surprising public rebuke to the official case against him. The campaign has drawn upon the large online following that Ai, 54, cultivated before his 81-day detention this spring. The authorities accuse Ai of income tax evasion, while he contends the investigation is retaliation for the vocal stance he has taken against the Chinese leadership in recent years.
As of Monday afternoon Ai had received $830,000—more than one third of the bill—from 18,829 sources, according to Liu Yanping, a volunteer at Ai’s Beijing studio. “These people all felt very frustrated when the state handed me such a huge bill,” Ai said in an interview. “They use their money as a ballot. I was very impressed.” The funds have come via bank and postal transfers, Paypal and delivery to his studio in Beijing’s Caochangdi district. “People are coming in and throwing money over the wall during the night,” Ai says. “We saw the cats playing with something and said, ‘What is this?’ Then we realized it was money.”
Ai says he will continue fighting the income tax evasion case, but plans to try to pay the bill to avoid facing further charges. The artist says he considers the recent contributions to be loans, not donations, and plans to pay them back within a year. On Twitter and even Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblog where political content is censored, some activists have posted messages about becoming “Ai’s creditors.” “There has been such a great discussion,” Ai says. “People say this is the only opportunity you have to borrow from us and we are so proud. People say Chinese people don’t care and they are selfish. I don’t think so. I just think they have no way to express themselves. Chines people are very beautiful and have a kind conscience and they really want to be involved.”
On Monday the English and Chinese editions of the Global Times, a Communist Party-run tabloid, played down the campaign, saying that as China was a large country the donations did not represent a significant trend. “Ai’s political preference along with his supporters’ cannot stand for the mainstream public, which is opposed to radical and confrontational political stances,” the paper wrote in an editorial. The paper further suggested that the donations could land Ai in further trouble for participating in illegal fundraising. Ai said he was not concerned about the possibility of additional charges. “They are just trying to scare me,” he says. “If (the authorities) want to do something unlawful they will do it anyway. They don’t need an excuse.”