By Kathrin Hille and Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
Thousands of Chinese have donated money online to help Ai Weiwei pay a $2.4m tax bill, in a rare fundraising campaign that challenges Beijing’s heavy-handed moves to crush the prominent artist.
The outspoken artist, who was detained for several months earlier this year, said the campaign, which started on Thursday, had already raised close to Rmb1m ($158,000).
“When Chinese people have no other way to express themselves, this is the way they feel they can vote to express their dissatisfaction,” Mr Ai told the Financial Times. “This has become one big online demonstration … We’ve had four or five thousand people send in money already.”
Beijing this week ordered Fake Cultural Development, the company Mr Ai runs with his wife, to pay more than Rmb15m ($2.4m) in back taxes, interest and penalties within 15 days.
Chinese netizens responded to the news – which Mr Ai tweeted on Twitter – by posting messages on a leading Chinese microblog asking for bank account details so they could send donations.
The artist’s assistant responded on Thursday by posting various account details, including Fake’s account at Alipay – the Chinese online payment service – and a PayPal account.
Mr Ai told the FT he would “keep this money for now … but I will give it all back to them eventually”.
The online campaign could provoke another escalation in the government’s crackdown on the artist. Beijing claims his 81-day long detention was due to “economic crimes,” including alleged tax evasion. Earlier this week, Mr Ai told Reuters that he would fight the charges “to the death”.
His outspoken criticism of the government is widely seen as a main reason for that treatment. Mr Ai had been released on condition that he did not speak about his detention. The artist, who routinely criticised the government on Twitter before his detention, had kept a lower profile until this week.
The wave of donations marks the latest example of social media helping to spread information and building sentiment contrary to official propaganda so fast that it floods government controls.
They also stand in stark contrast to the growing reluctance among many Chinese to donate to charity following a string of scandals involving, among others, the Red Cross Society of China.
Analysts said the use of Alipay had put the Chinese company in a difficult position, caught between the fear of offending the government by helping dissidents raise money and annoying netizens by banning the transfers.
Alipay was not immediately available for comment.
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