Art, Resistance, and Integrity: Ai Weiwei’s Tax Troubles

November 14, 2011 • Blogs, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 928

by John D’Amico:

Ai Weiwei—noted contemporary Chinese artist, designer, architect, and curator (to name but a few of his many pursuits)—can’t seem to escape confrontation with the Chinese authorities.  Known for his anti-government activism, and particularly his investigation into the deaths of students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai Weiwei doesn’t seem to fear making personal sacrifices for his beliefs.  A 2009 beating by police left him in need of brain surgery, and he emerged from an 81-day-long stint in prison for alleged tax evasion 26 pounds lighter.  The Chinese government, fixated on facilitating stability and “social harmony,” sometimes resorts to throwing its dissidents into “black jails,” extralegal detention centers where police employ harsh interrogation techniques and deny prisoners food and drink.  When he was detained for tax evasion, Ai was singled out not for an “economic crime,” but most likely for his increasingly brazen attacks on the government: in a particularly racy photo, Ai appeared all but naked, and the caption included a thinly veiled insult directed towards the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei, pictured above as "The Giant," has long been a target for the Chinese government. (v i p e z / Flickr Creative Commons)

However, despite pressure from the Chinese government to curtail his Twitter- and blog-based criticism, within two months of his release Ai returned to activism, speaking out on Twitter in defense of fellow Chinese human rights advocates. The governmental response came quickly: in November, authorities told Ai he needed to pay a total of $2.4 million in back taxes—$1.6 million more than their original evaluation of $770,000 earlier in the year.

Faced with the hefty tax burden, Ai chose this past Friday the 11th to contest the tax assessment.  Police did not provide Ai with any evidence of tax evasion on the part of his company, Beijing FAKE Cultural Development Ltd, which is owned by Ai’s wife. The authorities’ choice in targeting Ai instead of his wife, who owns the company, reveals the less-than-subtle political motivations behind the charge of “economic crimes.”  In flexing its muscle against Ai, however, the government might only inspire more of the kind of controversy it seeks to tamp down.  As Ai suffers, support for him thrives.  Across China, visitors and, more importantly, donations are flowing into Ai’s Beijing studio.  Ai needs $1.2 million within the next week to post as a guarantee in order to battle the assessment.  As of the 10th, Ai has received roughly $1 million in donations—folded into paper cranes, thrown over walls, and wired via the internet.  The CCP mouthpiece Global Times newspaper decried the donations as “illegal fundraising,” yet the outpouring of public support suggests that sympathy for Ai’s cause can rally substantial numbers of Chinese together.

Unfortunately for Ai’s long-term prospects, the Chinese government seems to be increasingly clever in its response to dissidence.  Other than the Global Times, the state-run media has kept its mouth shut, leaving many Chinese in the dark. With no one paying attention—the government hopes— Ai Weiwei might end up struggling in vain.

John D’Amico ’15 is in Pierson College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on topics relating to East Asian politics and culture. Contact him at

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