Ai Wei Wei: Dissident Artist Investigated Again

by by Ana Alvarez

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Ai WeiWei, prominent Chinese contemporary artist, clamorous political dissident, and recently-released government prisoner was charged again last week for tax evasion. He was slapped with a $2.4 million tax bill and given two weeks to pay, this period ending Tuesday, November 15. The charge come after Ai was detained last April for three months under the pretext of investigating his taxes. However, Ai has stated that along with previous arrest, this most recent tax bill, which far surpasses the $700,000 investigators originally cited, is the next attempt from the Chinese government to silence one of its most outspoken subversives.

Ai comes from a well-established legacy of political dissent. He is the son of China’s most renowned modern poet, Ai Qing, who was sent to a labor camp along with Ai’s mother in 1958 during China’s Anti-Rightist Movement when Ai was only one year old. Today, Ai is perhaps best known for his internationally acclaimed architectural feat, Bird’s Nest, which served as the stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Even though he was strongly critical of the Olympic ceremonies, his gripping architectural design catapulted him into star-status within the contemporary art world. Most recently, Ai opened an exhibition Ai WeiWei Absent at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan on November 1,one day after he was charged and fined.  Ai publically apologized from being absent from the shows opening—after his release from detainment this past June he has not been allowed to leave Beijing.

It is Ai’s films and blog posts, exposing the Chinese government’s continued unjust detention of political dissidents, that have gained him notoriety and catapulted him to national celebrity in China. In 2008, Ai blogged about the case of Yang Jia, a Shanghai resident who was executed for the murder of six Shanghai police men who beat and arrested him for using an unlicensed bicycle. Additionally, Ai’s 2009 documentary on activist lawyer Fend Zhenghu’s three-month detention in Tokyo’s airport also caused a stir with Chinese officials.

All of his political provocations came to a climax last April when the artist was inexplicably arrested and detained for 81 days in an undisclosed location. Authorities also detained his wife and assistants. While the Chinese government claimed that Ai’s detention, and the subsequent raid of his studio, was part of a tax evasion investigation, the artist claimed that questioning never mentioned his financial activity and instead focused on his activist work. Months after his eventual release in June 2011, Ai described that during his detention, he was held in a small room under the constant surveillance of two guards. “It is designed as a kind of mental torture, and it works well,” Ai told the New York Times.

Following his arrest in April, international human rights groups and art institutions around the world called for Ai’s release. The contemporary art world rallied around Ai’s cause—petitions, museum-organized protests, and even a “Free Ai WeiWei” street art campaign ensued. Once discharged, Ai, who was banned from giving interviews, remained silent and stayed in Beijing under the terms of his release. He broke his silence in August through his preferred medium of expressing political dissent—Twitter. Ai spoke out against the ongoing detention of his colleagues, many who, like Ai, use social networking sites and blogs to express their discontent with Chinese censorship and control. When Ai tweeted about the continued detention of fellow blogger Ran Yunfei, the writer was released within hours. “If I don’t speak out for them,” Ai explained in an interview with the Times, “this is not possible, even though it may bring damage to my condition.”

The tax evasion charges thrown on Ai in the past weeks show that he rightly foresaw trouble with the Chinese government through his continued broadcasts against the detention of dissident citizens. What was not anticipated was the overflowing of positive financial support from Ai’s followers. Without prompting from the artist, Chinese supporters have donated over a million dollars to the Ai WeiWei cause in an act of solidarity against state oppression. “People started to release their anger [by] sending their money in. They just send their money as a voting ticket,” Ai told NPR last week. Ai accepted the donations, pointedly describing them as loans that he plans to repay in full.

In partial compliance with the charges raised, last Tuesday Ai deposited $1.3 million into a government bank account. Ai feared that if he did not pay, his wife Lu Qing, who is the legal representative of Ai’s design company under investigation, would be arrested. Ai said that this payment does not signal defeat or concession to the unjust charges; he will use this initial payment as a guarantee of his continuing refutation of the government’s unfair treatment, and as a preemptive measure to avoid further trouble with the law for his family and assistants.

“If you don’t do it this way, they might send you to the public security, then the public security organ can use some other procedure, under the charge of refusing to pay taxes, to do what, I don’t know,” Ai said. “Of course, this would have been very unsafe for a lot of people.”

It is still unclear how the Chinese government will reply to Ai’s initial payment and whether a hearing into the legality of the tax evasion charges will occur. Yet what this situation has shown to Ai is the hopeful promise of solidarity within China. “I feel that this is the beginning of civil society in China,” he said. “Young people have their own knowledge and don’t believe state media or the government’s accusations against me. This shows people care. They don’t only care, but they take action.”

ANA ALVAREZ B’13 is on her Ai game.