China's Ai Weiwei agonizes over paying tax bill

BEIJING Tue Nov 8, 2011 3:05am EST

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei speaks to members of the media in the doorway of his studio after he was released on bail in Beijing June 23, 2011.  REUTERS/David Gray

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei speaks to members of the media in the doorway of his studio after he was released on bail in Beijing June 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei said he is still agonizing over whether to pay a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) bill for alleged tax evasion due next week and tacitly admit guilt, or to fight the charge and possibly risk detention again.

Supporters of Ai, whose 81-day secret detention earlier this year sparked an international outcry, have said the tax case is part of Beijing's efforts to muzzle China's most famous social critic, and many have chipped in contributions.

In four days, more than 20,000 people have donated about 6 million yuan ($945,000) over the Internet, by post and even by folding bills into "airplanes" and flying them over the walls of his home in northeastern Beijing, Ai said on Tuesday. But he said he has not decided whether to pay the tax bill.

"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 appeared torn about the options he faces compared with last week when he told Reuters he would fight the charges "to the death."

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.

At first, Ai mulled using his 79-year-old mother Gao Ying's house as collateral. On Tuesday, however, he said meeting the deadline that way may not be possible because of the time needed to process the paperwork.

"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.

Ai said authorities had not shown him evidence of the alleged tax evasion and had told the manager and accountant of Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., which is the company accused of evading taxes, not to meet him.

The detention of the 54-year-old artist, who has been a thorn in the government's side for his satirical art and criticism of contemporary China, drew criticism from Western governments. He was released in late June.

"If China is not stable, it'll also affect the world tremendously, and people in the West will feel sorry for that."

Ai said he has a responsibility to speak out, but added that

at the same time, he recognizes "it's equally dangerous for myself and my family because they (the authorities) don't need an excuse to do things."

"THIS IS A DEMONSTRATION"

The government's tax case against Ai has inadvertently set off a wave of spontaneous activism in China.

"Don't be anxious, I'll wait for freedom to come, you return it to me in a new currency," one donor wrote to Ai in a note seen by Reuters, referring to the face of former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong on China's banknotes.

In another note, a donor gave 289.64 yuan -- in reference to the June 4, 1989, armed crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

"We are all very clear on what has happened, but yet no one has done anything about it," said Li Zhe, a 36-year-old manager who dropped off 40,000 yuan at Ai's compound on Tuesday morning. "So my purpose in doing this is that I am doing something."

The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said in an editorial on Monday that the donations to Ai constitute "illegal fund-raising."

"The government doesn't want people to demonstrate, but this is a demonstration," Ai said, adding that his microblog account on Sina Weibo has been disabled several times. "People are mailing in money. They said: 'This is the first time they have a chance to vote,' and 'To punish you is trying to punish all of us.'"

Ai, famous for his work on the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium in Beijing, said the donors were mostly in their 30s.

In the past four days, one person donated as much as 900,000 yuan, and money has even been shoved into the feeding bowl for his cat. Ai said he plans eventually to return the money.

"I was quite surprised, I didn't expect it to turn out like this," he said. "We always think that China is a plate of sand. That's a description of this society, you can never hold it together. That's why it gives a dictator the best way to pick up a person like me."

"The government hates this the most," he said. "They want patriotism, they want to see the nation's glory that is higher than any individual's efforts."

($1 = 6.351 Chinese yuan)

(Additional reporting by Marc Detemple, Editing by Ken Wills and Ed Lane)

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