Thousands of individual donors swamped dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Internet account Friday, offering to help him pay a $2.4 million tax bill he was handed earlier this week, in a striking show of defiance against the government.
“It’s amazing,” Mr. Ai said in an interview. “This has become a big movement.”
More than 1,600 supporters had pledged or paid more than 400,000 RMB ($63,500) by mid-afternoon on Friday, just a few hours after the wave of donations began to surge, the artist said.
Ai, an outspoken critic of the government who was detained last April and held in solitary confinement for 81 days, said on Tuesday that the authorities had presented him with a $2.4 million tax bill, charging him with tax evasion in the past.
Ai says the allegations are cover for political persecution, and argues that he is not the legal owner of Beijing Fake Cultural Development, which makes most of his work. His wife, Lu Qing, is the owner.
The online public subscription drive began earlier this week, when several prominent supporters of Ai’s proposed the idea. It appears to have really taken off since Hu Jia, a well known human rights activist who was released in June after a 40-month sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” announced on his Twitter account on Thursday that he had donated 1,000 RMB ($158) to Ai.
“He wanted to express his gratitude and respect for what Ai has done,” explained Mr. Hu’s wife, Zeng Jinyan, in an interview.
Ai said he had not solicited donations from the public, but that “when they started coming in, we had to either tell people to stop or that we would be happy to borrow the money.” He decided on the latter course of action, he said “even though lots of people have said they do not want to be repaid.”
Ai is one of China's best known contemporary artists internationally, whose work (including the design of the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium) has earned him a great deal of money. Contributors to his tax bill are clearly not offering help because they think he needs the cash, but for more symbolic reasons.
“So many people had so much anger when I was disappeared,” Ai said. “They want to show the government their anger and what a mistake it made. They want to speak out and pay the government back.”
“We are doing performance art with him to mock the autocratic state machine,” said one lender in a message signed @ihnsfa on Ai’s microblog. “I hope our slight power can help you win a splendid victory,” read another message, accompanying a donation of 1,000 RMB.
Ai’s microblog account with Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese site, gave details to donors or lenders instructing them how send money either electronically through a local Paypal clone, or more traditionally by bank or post office transfer.
Ai said he was unsure whether the contributions he is receiving from supporters would ever amount to the sum the government is demanding, but added that the surge in donations on Friday had been “crazy. It’s getting bigger and bigger. My telephone is lighting up like a Christmas tree.
“China is really hopeful,” he said, his voice quavering with emotion. “Lots of people have made their own decisions” about the justice of his treatment “and have their own moral judgment that is so strong and so generous.”
“People are using this way to protest against the authorities’ crackdown” on Ai, said Ms. Zeng. “There is no legal way for the government to stop it.”