BEIJING – As the deadline approaches for paying a whopping tax bill of $2.4 million, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has collected nearly half that amount from supporters across China.
“I’m very surprised,” said the 54-year old Ai in his studio in northeastern Beijing. “I never really [wanted] people to donate anything to us.”
Last Tuesday, the authorities presented the bill to his company, known as Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, and issued a deadline of November 15. Fake, which is registered in the name of Ai’s wife, manages the artist’s affairs. The government is seeking the back taxes and fines based on tax evasion charges they made earlier this year against Ai during his 81-day detention in an undisclosed location.
Ai immediately turned to his apparent favorite medium of expression these days, the Internet, to solicit donations from followers.
An unorthodox way of fundraising
While the artist said he has the means to find the money himself to pay the tax bill, he wanted to bring attention to how the government is treating him. Ai’s family and supporters have maintained that the tax evasion charges come as retaliation for his constant attacks on the Chinese central government.
Ai has said he considers the donations a “loan” and intends to pay everyone back.
The donations have come in many shapes and sizes. Roughly 25,000 people have sent in donations by Alipay (a Chinese version of PayPal), money orders, and cash–wrapped around fruit or folded as paper planes thrown over the garden wall into his compound.
Ai Weiwei gives journalists the latest tally of donations that have been streaming in since last week.
“Society should be more tolerant,” said Zhao Yangping, a retired engineer living in Beijing. We found her leaving the studio, where she had just donated some money on behalf of relatives from overseas who wanted to show their support for Ai. “Why should the government be so nervous? He deserves more freedom. The government is too harsh on him, too sensitive.”
The government maintains otherwise.
In the state-run newspaper, The Global Times, an editorial questioned whether Ai’s unorthodox response was legal, “Since he's borrowing from the public, it at least looks like illegal fund-raising.”
It also looks like people – even if still a small fraction given the size of China's population – are taking a stand in the battle between Ai and the government. "It is obviously…about that,” Ai said. “It’s about how people vote with very [limited] possibilities…. We use our money to vote. It’s our ticket.”
Despite initial reports stating that he was unsure yet about whether to pay the fine and back taxes, Ai confirmed to NBC News he would do so by next Tuesday.
“I think we have to,” he said. “If you don’t pay, then you violate another law…. And it’s not me now, they are not aiming at me. The tax company said it’s not you. It’s the company. In the company, there are several people [who are] innocent.”
Nonetheless, innocent people are affected by Ai’s activism.
On the day NBC News visited Ai, a young woman was waiting to confer with him about a predicament.
Wu Hongfei, a writer-journalist whose main passion she says is singing for her rock band, Happy Avenue, had just learned a concert for a birthday party this weekend had been cancelled.
“The authorities told Yugong Yishan [a public concert venue] that they cannot hold the performance,” she said. Managers at the club were not given any explanation, according to Wu, but she reckoned it had to do with their decision to give out sunflower seeds to ticket buyers as “a special birthday gift” from Wu to her audience.
Harmless or odd as it might seem, the gesture could be interpreted by authorities as an overt show of support for Ai.
“Sunflower Seeds” is the name of a major installation Ai mounted late last year at the Tate Modern, a prestigious museum in London. It was still on display in April, when the artist was detained in Beijing, and drew even more widespread attention as a result of his arrest.
Wu has already had one other concert shut down by local officials—again no reason was given although she suspects it’s because of her association with Ai.
“This is irrational. We’re not even that close friends. I don’t bother the government. I don’t even understand politics,” she said. “If I can’t perform, then what can I do? I really love my band.”