A Beijing court rejected activist artist Ai Weiwei’s appeal against a multimillion-dollar penalty the Chinese government says his company owes for evading taxes. Ai, who was blocked from attending the hearing on Friday morning in the Chaoyang District Court in eastern Beijing, says the case against him is politically motivated, and he plans to continue to challenge the government’s charge. “We know we can’t win. We know the tax bureau, the police, the courts, they are all the same,” Ai told TIME after the ruling. “But we will continue to fight to show what this system is like.”
Ai was held in secret detention for 81 days in the spring and summer of last year. He was accused of “economic crimes,” and the company that represents his work, Beijing Fake Design Cultural Development Co., was hit with a $2.4 million bill in November. Ai said that in days of interrogation during his detention, he was asked largely about his political activities, including his efforts to collect names of children who died in schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. “When I was arrested, they told me it was because you criticize the government, talk to foreign journalists and harm the national interest,” he said. “So we will use taxes to punish you.”
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Ai was blocked from attending the hearing, and journalists and diplomats were turned away from approaching court, which was surrounded by dozens of police. Ai’s wife, Lu Qing, attended the hearing as the legal representative of his company, along with lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. They have argued that the Beijing tax bureau violated procedure in the case and has relied on photocopies of corporate documents that were confiscated and not returned by police, preventing Ai from mounting a defense. “This is totally unreasonable,” Pu said outside the court. “Everyone can see the illegality of their actions.” He says Ai will continue to appeal the ruling.
Ai, 55, is the son of beloved Chinese poet Ai Qing. He worked as a street painter, photographer and sculptor in New York in the 1980s and early ’90s before returning to China. He produced rebellious works over the next decade, painting Han dynasty urns with Coca-Cola symbols and photographing Lu lifting her skirt in front of Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen Square. He was artistic consultant for the iconic Bird’s Nest national stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics, but then denounced the structure as a “fake smile” amid the pageantry of the 2008 Summer Games. It was the Sichuan earthquake in May of that year that seemed to galvanize him as a government critic. He wrote about the earthquake’s aftermath on his blog, and once that was shut down he took to Twitter, where he now has more than 155,000 followers. He is a compulsive user of the microblog service, publishing dozens of messages daily and interacting with seemingly everyone from other well-known activists to new Twitter users who send their first messages to him.
That level of online self-promotion and interaction has helped him build a support base in China, despite the official case against him. After his company was hit with tax penalties last year, thousands of people contributed more than $1 million to help pay his initial bond. He says he intends to pay those contributions back and has sent hand-rendered IOUs to contributors. On Friday, a small group of supporters gathered around the Chaoyang courthouse to express their solidarity with the artist. “Of course we are scared,” says Du Yanlin, a tax lawyer who has advised Ai. Wearing a T-shirt with the artist’s name, he stood in the sweltering heat awaiting a verdict. “We have to come to face this fear,” he said after learning the outcome.