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Ai Weiwei getting donations that send message to China's leaders

November 7, 2011 |  8:02 am

REPORTING FROM BEIJING --  Ever since Ai Weiwei was slammed with a $2.4-million tax bill, donations have been flying over the wall of the provocative artist’s compound in northeastern Beijing.

His supporters have folded 100 yuan notes -- the equivalent of $15.75 -- into paper airplanes that glided into the compound. Other wrapped the money around pieces of fruit and hurled it over the wall. Or more traditionally Chinese, they stuffed it into red envelopes. Ai is also taking contributions through PayPal.

As of midafternoon Monday,  Ai had received $833,000 in donations from 18,829 people, according to a Twitter posting by his assistant, Liu Yanping. 

Chinese authorities are predictably unhappy about the outpouring of support and money. The Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece known for its fiery nationalist editorials, on Monday said the donations might violate the law.

"Since he’s borrowing from the public, it at least looks like illegal fundraising," the newspaper said in a broad hint that there could be more charges to come against Ai. "It will not alter the matter of Ai’s tax evasion, something his followers don’t even question."

The newspaper pointed out that Ai is one of China’s most successful artists and recently purchased an apartment in Berlin -– a sign that he can probably afford to pay his own taxes.

The 54-year-old artist told the Associated Press on Monday that his donors were using their money to make a political statement.

"This shows that a group of people who want to express their views are using their money to cast their votes," he said. “It shows that in the Internet age, society will have it own judgment and its own values."

Ai was arrested April 3 at Beijing’s international airport and was held for 40 days without formal charges, provoking an outcry that he was a victim of a political vendetta for his blistering criticism of the Chinese government.

Among the donors was Zhao Lianhai, who became an activist for food safety after his child was sickened by  baby formula tainted with the additive melamine in 2008. Another was a father who wanted to recognize Ai’s efforts to publicize the plight of children killed by collapsing schools in the devastating Sichuan province earthquake. The man sent in 512 yuan, about $80, marking the date of the earthquake: May 12, 2008.

Even more provocative was the tribute from Jason Ng, a well-known technology blogger. He sent in 89.64 yuan, or about $14. Anybody in China would recognize the significance:  June 4, 1989 was the date of the brutal crackdown on student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

"It’s not about the money," wrote Ng on a microblog. “I just don’t like the Communist Party! That’s it."


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-- Barbara Demick

Photo: Workers sort through bundles of remittance receipts at the Beijing home of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Thousands of people have sent donations to help him pay a tax bill they see as government harassment. Credit: Ng Han Guan / Associated Press