BEIJING (Reuters) - Artist-activist Ai Weiwei said on Wednesday his 81-day detention and clash with authorities over alleged tax evasion was emblematic of countless other lesser-known cases of detainees held in jails and labor camps in China.
For the first time since he was released from secret detention in late June, Ai met publicly on Wednesday with authorities at the Beijing tax bureau, which approved his payment of 8.45 million yuan ($1.3 million) — all contributions from tens of thousands of supporters — allowing him access to an administrative review of the tax evasion charges.
Surrounded by television reporters outside the tax bureau, Ai said tax authorities told him they will “carefully handle” an administrative review, in which a panel re-examines the merits of an official decision to bill him 15 million yuan.
“I’m speaking up, not for myself, but for those who have no voice,” Ai, 54, told Reuters in an interview at his home and studio in northeastern Beijing.
“I hope that when society looks at me, they’ll remember that I’m not an individual case,” he said. “Many people don’t understand why they can’t be with their children, they aren’t able to see the people they want to see. Their voices will never be heard,” he said.
Human rights groups say that Chinese police and security agencies have detained or put in secretive extra-judicial confinement hundreds of dissidents, activists and persistent protesters since February, reflecting government alarm that unrest that spread across the Arab world might inspire anti-government protests in China.
Many detainees subsequently have been released, but they often remain under close surveillance.
Ai was detained without charge in April and held mainly in solitary confinement until his conditional release in late June.
He has ignored efforts to silence him and has instead become a rallying point for China’s dissidents and activists.
“I was a hostage half a year ago,” he told reporters.
“Now I’ve paid the ransom, I feel like I’m being robbed,” said Ai, who was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with his face and the words “missing” and “found.”
Supporters of Ai have said the tax case is part of Beijing’s efforts to muzzle China’s most famous social critic, and about 30,000 people have contributed about 9 million yuan.
Ai said he would not pay an additional fine of about 6.6 million yuan that he says would amount to an admission of guilt, although he said he remains pessimistic about successfully contesting the charges.
Du Yanlin, the accountant of Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., the company accused of evading taxes in Ai’s case, said the tax authorities should respond to the appeal for the review within 60 days.
On Wednesday morning, several police cars were parked outside Ai’s home. Ai said they had taken away many people who had come to show support in recent days.
On a table in Ai’s work studio, balloons printed with the words “Free Chen Guangcheng” were stuffed in a vase. Chen is a blind legal activist whose long confinement in his village in eastern China has sparked widespread anger.
A popular Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, dismissed the small sums donated by tens of thousands of supporters to Ai as trifling in the context of China’s 1.3 billion people.
“Ai Weiwei is a symbol of the Western world’s wholehearted support for dissidents,” said a commentary in the paper, which often reports on current affairs from a nationalist viewpoint.
“It must be said that without the ardent support of foreign forces, Ai Weiwei would be nothing — Ai Weiwei has merely made himself a point for the West to pry open China.”
The surge of support for Ai, however, shows that the crackdown faces stubborn resistance, said Zan Aizong, a dissident in eastern Hangzhou city, who has joined the online campaign to defend the artist.
“There’s little political risk in donating money. It’s not as sensitive as, say, signing a petition, so I think that’s one reason why Ai Weiwei has attracted such wide support,” Zan said in a telephone interview.
“But this also shows the rights defense movement is still stubborn and is becoming a bit bolder,” said Zan.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills