BEIJING Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei vowed Wednesday to fight tax evasion charges "to the death," a day after the government ordered a company linked to him to pay 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) in back taxes and fines.
The 54-year-old artist, who has been a thorn in the government's side for his satirical art and criticism of contemporary China, was detained without charge for 81 days this year in a move that drew criticism from Western governments.
He was released in late June on condition that he not talk to foreign media, since when he has mainly kept to himself and has been reluctant to accept interviews.
But in a two-hour interview with Reuters, Ai, who had a hand in designing the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, showed flashes of his previously fiery self.
"Will a person like Ai Weiwei surrender?" In my dictionary, there's no such word 'surrender'," the bearded artist said at his home and studio in northeastern Beijing where a team of lawyers and tax experts and his wife, Lu Qing, were gathered.
"Ordinary people will not be able to endure this. But because they've targeted me, I'm still willing to accompany them on this road. Because I'm not afraid of them. I think it's improper that a country is engaging in shameless activities."
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 has helped produce Ai's internationally renowned art and designs, not to meet him.
According to Ai, the Public Security Bureau has labeled him the "controlling person" of the company, although his wife is the legal representative. Ai said that if he didn't pay the penalty, his wife could go to jail.
"And for a country like that, I will fight them to the death," he said.
"I WIN MORALLY'
Ai said he did not have the money to pay the back taxes and fines within the time limit of 15 days. He has decided to use his 79-year-old mother Gao Ying's house as collateral before asking for an administrative review, in which a panel re-examines the merits of an official decision.
"These few months, what I've seen on the Internet has infuriated me," Gao said in her courtyard home in inner Beijing, which she believes is worth around 25 million yuan. "It's unacceptable that a government can bully its citizens."
The lawyer for Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, Pu Zhiqiang, said he planned to ask authorities in the tax bureau to revoke the case, saying it was "illegal."
Ai, who has spoken out on issues ranging from last year's award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo to Internet curbs, said authorities had targeted him for publishing a scathing attack on the government in an August commentary in Newsweek, in which he said citizens' rights were being violated.
Ai has taken his fight to the Internet with more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and warns the government case could backfire.
"There's a trial on the Internet every day," he said, with the government as "the accused."
"I think I win morally. I'm very lucky to have this kind of position. The normal act that I've taken -- just to ask the truth -- has become very heroic in this nation."
(Editing by Ken Wills and Nick Macfie)