There are days, maybe just hours left before Ai Weiwei’s next confrontation with Chinese authorities. The last time he butted heads with them, it didn’t go well: the dissident artist spent 81 days locked up in an unknown place under conditions he describes as “inhumane.”
But while Mr. Ai initially seemed cowed by that experience, he no longer lets it show. A video posted Sunday on YouTube shows the bearded 54-year-old dancing in an empty parking lot, spinning and singing as he mocks the authoritarian system that keeps trying to silence him.
The tune he sings is borrowed from the Chinese version of The Smurfs. The lyrics that he reads off an iPad2 tell of a battle between the fictional “grass-mud horse” (mispronounced in Chinese, it sounds like something a little worse than the f-word) and the “river crabs” (another play on words, the crustaceans represent China’s Internet censors).
“It’s kind of silly,” Mr. Ai said of the video in a telephone interview Monday with The Globe and Mail. “But being afraid will not help me.”
Mr. Ai’s latest showdown with the government looks set to come to a turning point this week, when he is supposed to pay a $2.4-million tax bill allegedly incurred by Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., a company he founded but that is now registered in his wife’s name.
Mr. Ai’s fearlessness appears to be contagious. In the 14 days since he was hit with the tax charge, thousands of supporters have come forward with donations big and small to help him pay the bill and stay out of jail. Some of the money came via bank transfers, others were 100-yuan notes folded into paper airplanes or wrapped around fruit and lobbed over the wall of his courtyard home and art studio on the outskirts of Beijing.
“[The donations]show at least that the public doesn’t trust the authorities. The whole accusation is a political charge. People know what’s going on, and they want to show their solidarity,” Mr. Ai said in English over a clicking mobile telephone line. “They are using money to vote. It might be the only chance in their lives where they get to show what they think.”
The outpouring doesn’t appear to have impressed the tax authorities. Mr. Ai said he had now raised about $1.3-million, an amount he sought Monday to put into escrow while his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, pursued an “administrative revision” of the total bill. However, Mr. Pu said tax authorities refused to accept the money, suggesting they would continue to seek full payment as early as Wednesday. They also refused to allow Mr. Ai’s mother to put up the family’s historic home as collateral (Mr. Ai is the son of a famous poet, Ai Qing) for the rest of the tax demand.
Liu Weimin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said Monday that the case should be “handled in accordance with the law.” But, he said, “it is a fact that Ai Weiwei has evaded a large amount of taxes and there is no doubt over this.”
The artist says this battle is not about taxes. In detention he was repeatedly questioned about his anti-government statements, he says, and never asked about his wife’s company’s accounting. He says police told him bluntly that they intended to destroy his reputation. “They clearly told me that ‘this is because we want to show everybody that you are bad and you don’t pay taxes and you do pornography and you are married twice,’ ” Mr. Ai said, referring to other personal attacks that were levelled against him in the state media around the time of his original disappearance. (Mr. Ai is a sculptor, photographer and designer. Some of his works involve nudity.)
Mr. Ai – who helped design Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and was recently named the most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview magazine – was previously seen by many as too prominent to be subjected to the kind of intimidation and arbitrary detention the ruling Communist Party uses against other detractors. That changed earlier this year as a wave of popular uprisings toppled authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. As Beijing grew nervous about a copycat uprising, Mr. Ai was among hundreds of activists detained without formal charges.
When he was released from detention in June, Mr. Ai seemed a weaker, chastened man. In an interview at the time, he said it was a term of his release that he cease his criticism of the government and not speak about the conditions of his detention. He was specifically warned to stop using social media such as Twitter (where he has about 113,000 followers) and its Chinese equivalent, Sina Weibo (where his account, and even searches for his name, are blocked).
He says he’s breaking his side of the agreement because the government broke its side. “It’s different now because they made this new case, this tax issue. I owe an explanation to the public,” he said.
But does he really think he can take on the Communist Party of China and win? “I don’t think I’m winning. I just think I have very good public support.”