HONG KONG - Demanding payment of a bill totaling more than 15 million yuan
(US$2.4 million) on Tuesday, the Beijing taxman will be knocking on the door of
politically incorrect artist Ai Weiwei.
Can he pay? Will he pay? Should he pay?
There has never been a more high-profile, politically charged tax case in
China. Ai, an internationally renowned conceptual artist who has also been an
unrelenting critic of the Chinese government, is being charged 5.3 million yuan
in back taxes, 6.8 million yuan in penalties and 3 million yuan in interest on
delayed payments - all in relation to a company, Beijing Fake Cultural
Development Ltd, that is not even registered in his name.
While his avant-garde work - as well as his maverick spirit - is celebrated in
London, New York and other Western capitals of
culture, at home Ai is being punished as an enemy of the state. And now it's
decision time for the burly, bearded, 54-year-old artist and polemicist.
If Ai pays up, Chinese authorities will show the receipt of payment to the
world as Ai's admission of guilt. If he refuses, it likely means a jail term
for a man who has already spent nearly three months in detention this year.
International arts and human-rights groups are blasting Beijing for its
treatment of Ai while, in China, Ai's growing fan club is raising money to help
him pay his taxes in a campaign that state media has branded as "illegal
fundraising", adding another suspect charge to Ai's long list of
Tens of thousands of people have contributed more than US$1 million to Ai since
he was served notice by tax authorities two weeks ago. The bulk of their
donations, small and large, have come via online payment platforms PayPal and
Alipay or through the post office, but some supporters simply showed up on the
doorstep of his Beijing home, where they left gifts of fruit wrapped in cash
and tossed yuan notes fashioned as paper airplanes over the wall fronting the
Ai's 80-year-old mother, Gao Ying, has been his most vociferous supporter and
has also offered to put up the family home in Beijing, reportedly valued at
around 25 million yuan, as collateral against her son's tax debt. Calling
Chinese officialdom "creepy, crooked, evil", she insists that Ai has been
targeted by the tax office for political reasons.
"As a mother, I love this country, I love the people and I want this country to
have a good image globally," Gao told the Guardian last week. "But these events
are too shameful. How come so many things of this kind happen to [Ai]? Isn't
this hounding him?"
Once upon a time, Ai's family held an honored position in China. Ai's father,
Ai Qing, was a famous poet who, after being accused of "rightism" in Mao
Zedong's China of 1957, was not published again until his rehabilitation in
1979, three years after Mao's death. Later that year, he became vice chairman
of the Chinese Writers Association. In 1985, he was awarded the coveted title
of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government for
his life's work.
When the elder Ai died in 1996, President Hu Jintao, then a rapidly rising star
in the country's ruling Communist Party politburo, was assigned to pay homage
to the great literary icon by making a pilgrimage to the family's home.
The younger Ai was also once wooed by the leadership, which encouraged him to
become an unofficial spokesman for the Communist Party and enlisted him to help
with the design of the iconic Beijing National Stadium, popularly known as the
"Bird's Nest", for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, hosted by Beijing. But the
catastrophic magnitude-8 earthquake in Sichuan province in May of that year
changed all that.
Ai used the easy access to the media that he had gained through his fame to
support calls for an investigation into the disproportionate number of students
who died in the quake after their shoddily constructed schools collapsed on
them while sturdier buildings housing government bureaucrats remained standing.
In August of 2009, Ai was badly beaten by police in his hotel room in the
Sichuan capital of Chengdu. He had traveled there to testify in the trial of
activist Tan Zuoren, who was charged with "inciting subversion of state power"
for publishing the findings of an independent investigation into the deaths of
more than 5,000 children in Sichuan's "tofu" schools.
Ai was subsequently flown to the German city of Munich, where he underwent
emergency brain surgery. Tan was found guilty and sentenced to five years in
Following his recovery in Munich, Ai returned to China and has continued to
speak out on a range of controversial issues. He has denounced the central
government's censorship of the Internet and media and voiced support for last
year's Nobel Peace Prize recipient, writer and scholar Liu Xiaobo, who is
currently serving an 11-year jail sentence in China, also for subversion.
Last August, in an article published on the website of Newsweek magazine, Ai
condemned his own treatment in detention as well as China's human-rights record
Moreover, Ai has taken his battle with the Chinese government to the
microblogging website Twitter, where he has more than 100,000 followers, even
though Twitter is blocked in China. His account on Sina Weibo, the Chinese
version of Twitter, has been disabled.
Even Ai's self-portrait - a photograph of the leaping artist naked save for a
small, stuffed animal covering his genitals - appears to be a dig at the
Chinese leadership: "Grass mud horse covering the middle," reads the cheeky
caption for the photo - which, in Chinese, sounds an awfully lot like "F*ck
your mother, the Communist Party Central Committee".
The grass mud horse, by the way, is a mythical cyber-creature invented by
frustrated Chinese netizens as a symbol of defiance against Beijing's army of
The tax case against Ai began in mystery on April 3, when the artist was seized
by police at Beijing Capital International Airport as he prepared to board a 9
am flight to Hong Kong. He was then held incommunicado and without charge.
On June 22, 81 days later, he was released following state media reports that
he had confessed to "economic crimes".
Since his release, the previously insuppressible Ai had been
uncharacteristically quiet until his impassioned article in Newsweek. Now,
clearly, the tax collector has further stirred his ire, with the artist vowing
to fight "to the death" the charges against him.
"Will a person like Ai Weiwei surrender?" Ai is reported as saying. "In my
dictionary, there's no such word 'surrender'. Ordinary people will not be able
to endure this. But because they've targeted me, I'm still willing to accompany
them on this road. Because I'm not afraid of them."
On Twitter, Ai vented: "All the ministries of this nation, these men and women,
have no shame in becoming the tools of persecution of the political power ... I
am shocked, it is a tragedy."
Ai's strategy at this point - outlined on Friday by his wife, Lu Qing - is to
pay half of what he owes in order to qualify to launch an appeal of his case.
That represents a compromise, not an admission of guilt - although we all know
where that appeal will probably go: nowhere.
Ultimately, barring some stunning change in the way the Chinese legal system
operates, Ai will be required to pay up. If he refuses, he goes to jail but
further enhances his status as a fearless, anti-establishment hero willing to
sacrifice his freedom to cast an international spotlight on China's corrupt
Ai now has more than his own fate to worry about, however. Although he has been
designated by the tax office as the "controlling person" of Beijing Fake
Cultural Development - which has indeed been instrumental in producing and
promoting his ground-breaking art in China and around the world - his wife is
the company's legal representative and thus could wind up joining him in prison
if he fails to pay.
So, when the taxman comes knocking, it will be a profound, soul-searching
moment for China's best-known artist.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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