Chinese artist Ai Weiwei faces new hurdles in tax case

BEIJING Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:55pm EST

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks to the door of his home after talking to his lawyers in Beijing November 14, 2011.    REUTERS/David Gray

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks to the door of his home after talking to his lawyers in Beijing November 14, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities are setting hurdles for artist-activist Ai Weiwei to pay a bond that would let him appeal a tax fine his backers have called a political vendetta, threatening to complicate his legal battle, one of his lawyers said Monday.

Ai, whose secretive 81-day detention this year sparked worldwide attention, has until Wednesday to lodge collateral that would allow him to contest a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) fine for tax evasion, which he denies.

But the government is demanding he pay the 8.4 million yuan bond in cash straight into a tax bureau bank account, something his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said lacked legal provision. The government is also refusing to accept Ai's mother's house as collateral, Pu added.

"We have done everything we were supposed to do," Pu told reporters at Ai's house in northeastern Beijing. "I'm worried that they will think we have not paid the bond and then will restrict our ability to appeal."

Ai's lawyers were "thinking of ways to resolve this issue for the government," Pu added.

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

According to Ai, the Public Security Bureau has deemed him to be the "controlling person" of the company, although his wife is the legal representative. Ai has said that if he did not pay the penalty, his wife could go to jail.

Since Ai's detention and subsequent release, the bearded and burly artist has become the most internationally prominent face of China's circles of dissidents and human rights activists.

In turn, he has become a rallying point for those groups, beleaguered since a crackdown that began early this year brought a wave of detentions and arrests.

For Ai, 54, the push-back against the crackdown can be measured in the torrent of money donated by supporters who, like him, believe a tax fine imposed after his release from detention was political revenge for his assertive, often ribald jousting with the ruling Communist Party.

"All of this shows how many members of the public feel about the case against me leveled by the tax authorities," Ai said in a brief interview Sunday.

"It shows public sympathy for people in our position, not just me personally,"

By late Sunday, donors had given about 8.7 million yuan, Ai said, enough to secure the bond to fight the case. He said he would probably still have to sell the house of his 79-year-old mother, Gao Ying, to fight the tax fine.

Ai's name is pronounced "Eye Way-way."

VENTING FRUSTRATIONS

He had a hand in designing the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and is well-known abroad as a contemporary artist and designer.

For many of Ai's supporters who have sent donations by remittance, or turned up at his home to toss cash-filled envelopes over the wall, he is also a symbol of their own ire with China's strict political controls.

"Since the crackdown in the first half of the year, this has become another way for people to vent their frustrations," said Zhang Jianping, a human rights advocate in east China's Jiangsu province who helps run a website that has promoted sending donations to Ai.

"His case is a way for people to speak out and speak the truth," Zhang said in a telephone interview. "He's seen as someone willing to stand up for the truth, so that resonates with many people, even if they're not as bold as him."

Pu described the tax dispute as a political battle of attrition that could spill into later next year, when the Chinese Communist Party passes power to a new generation of leaders, who Pu hoped would ease up on Ai.

"I think there really are strong grounds for overturning the (tax) determination. There's no reason that Ai Weiwei should be subject to the fine, because he was not the legal representative of the company at the heart of the dispute," Pu told Reuters earlier, referring to Beijing Fake Cultural Development,

"We'll have to wait and see what political changes next year brings," added Pu. "We believe that this case was triggered by political factors, and political factors could still reverse the course in Ai Weiwei's favor."

If Ai loses the administrative appeal, he will then take the case to the courts, which could take many months, said Pu.

($1 = 6.342 yuan)

(Editing by Sugita Katyal)

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