Social Media Helps Pay Ai Weiwei’s Tax Bill
Chinese Spring may still be a long way off, but internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei isn't waiting around for it.
The political dissident, who was jailed for 81 days earlier this year for his critical views of the Chinese government, announced that nearly 20,000 people donated $840,000 over the weekend to help him with a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) fine for tax evasion—a bogus charge suspected by many to be a thinly veiled excuse for government harassment.
"These are tens of thousands of people bringing in the money," Ai Weiwei told the BBC. "They all have one message: we're supporting you, we're behind you, we have to let the people know solidarity and we know what it is and we know the accusations are fake; they're unreal."
Despite warnings not to use Twitter or other forms of social media, Weiwei vented his frustrations online and kicked off a fundraising drive Friday that had thousands of Chinese reaching into their pockets to express outrage over the incident. Donations came in every shape and size, from wire transfers to bills wrapped around fruit or folded into airplanes and tossed over the gates of Weiwei's property.
According to the AP, many also came with words of encouragement:
Volunteer Liu Yanping said many of the donations have been accompanied by messages of support, including "Brother, let me be your creditor," and "The whole family has been mobilized, everyone will be creditors," Liu said. Other messages were poetic: "Walk toward the light, the darkness will pass," wrote one supporter.
With 500 million registered Internet users—the largest market in the world—freedom of expression continues to be a prickly subject in China. While many writers and artists have embraced the medium to attract their audiences, they risk being singled out by the over 50,000 government-employed censors as their work grows in notoriety.
"The worst effect of the censorship is the psychological impact on writers," said writer Murong Xuecan, who has over 1.1 million followers on a Twitter-like platform, to the New York Times. "...I can clearly feel the impact of censorship when I write. For example, I'll think of a sentence, and then realize that it will for sure get deleted. Then I won't even write it down. This self-censoring is the worst."
Perhaps the most notable example of the state's iron grip on free speech is their emprisonment of last year's Nobel Laureate for Peace, Liu Xiaobo, who continues to be held as a political prisoner despite ongoing attempts by human rights activists.
As for Weiwei, he admits that he doesn't need the money, calling all the donations "loans" that will be paid back. The point, however -- to rally and galvanize his compatriots -- has been made.
"Yes, I am very wealthy, but this is a separate issue," Ai said to the AP. "I have said that I will repay every cent of the loans. One person's innocence is tied together to a country's innocence. I'm not doing this to profit myself."