BEIJING Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is learning a frustrating lesson about challenging Chinese authorities - he is welcome to sue the government over a festering tax case, but must first produce a company seal confiscated by police that he has no way of recovering.
Ai sued the tax authorities over a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) tax evasion penalty on the company he works for, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.
Ai's wife, Lu Qing, the company's legal representative, was due to hear by Friday whether Beijing's Chaoyang District Court would accept the suit challenging both the penalty and the lack of access to evidence and witnesses.
But the court told Lu on Thursday to produce the seal - a stamp embossed with the company's name which is used in China on all official documents - that was confiscated by police when Ai was detained last year.
"We can't get the seal back," Ai told Reuters by telephone. "It's in the hands of the police. It's very much a Catch 22."
Ai said Lu was giving the court an explanation on why the seal was missing in the hope it will waive the requirement. The court told Lu she will hear whether the lawsuit is accepted within the next seven days.
Court officials were not immediately available for comment.
Supporters of Ai, whose 81-day detention last year sparked an international outcry, have said the tax case is part of the government's effort to muzzle China's most famous social critic.
Ai was detained without any charge in April 2011 and held mainly in solitary confinement until his conditional release in June. The bearded artist has been a persistent irritant to authorities and has ignored efforts to silence him, making use of Twitter to communicate with his supporters.
Chinese courts have made it difficult for dissidents to hear lawsuits, for example, by insisting that the materials must be written using a ballpoint pen instead of a fountain pen.
The company's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, told Reuters previously that authorities had not shown him any original documents with evidence of the alleged tax evasion and held a closed hearing last July. Pu said it was illegal for them to do so.
"We not only can't get the seal back, we don't even have the complete copies of what they have," Ai said. "They're not helpful at all and are being very bureaucratic."
(Editing by Ben Blanchard)