Ai Weiwei Uncertain Whether to Pay Tax Bill as Donations Approach $1,000,000

Reuters reports that loans and other contributions to help Ai Weiwei pay a 15 million yuan (US$2.4 million) tax bill have created a pool of almost one million US dollars from over 20,000 donors so far. But having vowed to fight the charges “to the death”, Ai is uncertain whether he should pay.

“I’m still very hesitant about it,” Ai told Reuters in an interview. “Last night, I said: ‘Come on, I’m not going to pay anything.'”

“Even if I got all the money and support from the public, police told me just yesterday: ‘Well, it’s good, you still have the intention to pay. If you pay, that means you admit the crime,'” Ai said. “It will justify the way they’ve arrested me. By myself, in my heart, I won’t pay a penny ….”

Ai said he has enough on hand to pay the first 8 million yuan in back taxes and late payment penalties that is required by next Tuesday to get an administrative review, in which a panel re-examines the merits of an official decision ….

“The logic is, if we pay, then we have a chance to appeal. But you know, the court and the whole legal system has also become a subdivision of the police,” he said.

Human Rights in China translated a message from Ai’s mother, Gao Ying, who wrote that she would be willing to give up her home if necessary to raise funds (although the Reuters article, written two days later, explains that this would take too long to help in any case):

They demand that the 15,220,000 has to be paid in 15 days. An additional 200,000 yuan will be added for every day late. And if he can’t pay it, then he’ll be taken in. This amount is astronomical for an artist. At the same time, the deadline for payment is so tight that not even robbing banks could help. … Well, since Ai Weiwei is not able to pay, as his mother, I have to step in to help. My monthly retirement payment isn’t much, just a few thousand yuan; this bit of money can’t save my daughter-in-law and their friends who are implicated.

The only thing that I can use is my home; I am willing to first mortgage it, then auction it. I want to resolve this debt. …

I am a Chinese person. I want to live with dignity. If a country is not well run, the Chinese people are dishonored. I hope that in our country there is freedom, justice, rule of law, guarantee of personal safety, and people can live with a sense of security. As a mother, these are what I ask for, but I’m afraid I will not get them.

Whether Ai decides to pay or not may be incidental to many of the donors, whose contributions seemed to be intended more as symbolic gestures than as financial assistance. Some chose to underscore their political intent by lending sums alluding to sensitive dates. The Los Angeles Times explains:

Among the donors was Zhao Lianhai, who became an activist for food safety after his child was sickened by baby formula tainted with the additive melamine in 2008. Another was a father who wanted to recognize Ai’s efforts to publicize the plight of children killed by collapsing schools in the devastating Sichuan province earthquake. The man sent in 512 yuan, about $80, marking the date of the earthquake: May 12, 2008.

Even more provocative was the tribute from Jason Ng, a well-known technology blogger. He sent in 89.64 yuan, or about $14. Anybody in China would recognize the significance: June 4, 1989 was the date of the brutal crackdown on student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

“It’s not about the money,” wrote Ng on a microblog. “I just don’t like the Communist Party! That’s it.”

Another 512 yuan contribution came, purportedly, from activist Tan Zuoren, who is currently serving a five year sentence for inciting subversion of state power. Some expressed wonder that he had been allowed to send a postal remittance from prison, while others suggested that the money was more probably not from Tan at all. The donations have been polarising, as reactions on Twitter illustrate:

@melissakchan (Al Jazeera English): Ai is a well-off artist with no shortage of money. That’s not the point. The point is that people are protesting, says the artist.

@Bequelin (Human Rights Watch): Donation campaign for Ai Weiwei a landmark dvt for State-society relations in China. 1st dissident not to turn into an outcast. #aiww

@jordanpouille (La Vie etc.): showing support by giving money to a well-off artist sounds very 1% for me.

@AdamMinter (Bloomberg etc.): Finally, it comes to me: Tom Wolfe explained Ai Weiwei donations in 1970. http://t.co/My4La3FJ #radicalchic

On Sina Weibo, Global Times editor Hu Xijin dismissed Ai and his supporters as a mere statistical inevitability given China’s size and diversity, suggesting that they were hopelessly alienated from the country’s mainstream. This echoed the argument put forward in a Monday editorial which also wafted vague accusations of illegal fundraising, a crime punishable by death, in Ai’s direction.

A Washington Post editorial, on the other hand, fell on the more positive end of the spectrum, suggesting that the support for Ai should stand as a warning to the authorities to avoid acting rashly:

By late Monday, Mr. Ai told the Agence France-Press news organization, he had collected 5.29 million yuan, or $830,000, more than a third of what he owes. It’s not clear that he needs the money; the artist has sold many works abroad. But Mr. Ai rightly is choosing to accept the payments as loans — and as a remarkable demonstration of solidarity. “This shows that a group of people who want to express their views are using their money to cast their votes,” he told the Associated Press. “It shows that in the Internet age, society will have its own judgment and its own values.”

That is just what Chinese authorities are worried about. Panicked by the popular uprisings for democracy in the Arab world this year, they have been trying to silence anyone who might inspire a “jasmine revolution” in China, starting with Mr. Ai. After arresting him in April, they held him incommunicado for nearly three months and subjected him to what he called “mental” tortures — such as being forced to stand for hours with guards inches away from him. When he was released in June, Mr. Ai was warned to stop speaking out in public ….

Communist authorities would be wise, however, to take a lesson from the popular reaction to Mr. Ai’s persecution. Perhaps the time isn’t yet ripe for the pro-democracy revolution the regime fears so much. But if the party would like to tempt fate, putting Mr. Ai back in jail would be an excellent way to do it.

Update: See also Evan Osnos’ take on Ai’s predicament.