China Rejects Ai Weiwei's $2.4 Million Tax Appeal

Ai Weiwei isn't surprised that a court struck down his appeal against a $2.4 million tax fine--things are 'rotten' in China. But will the famous dissident pay up? Dan Levin reports from Beijing.

09.27.12 12:41 PM ET

Beijing--The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei lost his second and final appeal on Thursday against a $2.4 million fine for tax evasion, which he and his supporters have long claimed was merely retaliation by the Chinese government for his outspoken activism against human rights abuses and corruption. 

The authorities levied the tax fine on the world-famous artist in 2011 following his three-month-long detention without charge, a period when he was subject to daily interrogations and psychological torment by the government. 

The Chinese government denied it had detained Ai for political reasons and subsequently charged The Beijing Fake Cultural Development firm, owned by Ai’s wife, with tax evasion, although the artist said the police never questioned him about taxes.

Rejecting the government’s claim, Ai and his wife filed a lawsuit against the tax bureau for violating numerous laws pertaining to witnesses, evidence, and case documents.A local court rejected their first appeal in July. Today’s ruling cannot be appealed.

In an interview following today’s ruling, Ai said he was not shocked by the government’s decision yet still dismayed by the complete lack of rule of law every Chinese must endure. 

“In one sense I’m not surprised because these are the same kind of procedural tricks they use to crush anyone, “ he said. “Of course this has nothing to do with taxes. What surprises me is that today China looks like a modern society and has gained so much power but still the system itself is so rotten." 

Yesterday, Ai received a phone call from the Beijing court notifying him of the ruling, a move he said flouted basic legal procedures, which dictate that he should have received written notice three days in advance. Thus, his lawyers, who he said were traveling, could not be in court.

Undeterred, Ai appeared in court, where he challenged the legality of the ruling and criticized those involved. “I asked the judge ‘are you a Communist party member?’ and he couldn’t even look at me,” he told The Daily Beast. “I said ‘shame on you, your behavior will be recorded by history.'”

For Ai, the judge embodied the bureaucratic brutality of Chinese officialdom. “They have no sense of shame,” he said. “Thats the way they survive.” 

The tax case triggered a wave of popular support for Ai, with thousands of ordinary Chinese donating funds to pay the fine, sometimes by throwing cash over the walls of his studio. Those funds will now be taken by the tax bureau.

According to Ai, while in detention he was told explicitly why he was targeted. “The police even said ‘there are are many artists and entertainers who may not like this this society but only you make such a noise.’”

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Thursday’s tax ruling does not resolve Ai’s battles with the government, which has so far refused to return his passport. This has prevented him from traveling to international exhibitions, but has not dampened the dark humor he wields in the face of such Kafkaesque complications.

Ironically, he is trapped in China along with the very officials who have possession of his passport, since police officers and soldiers are also forbidden from leaving the country. “They said ‘you must want your passport back so badly,” he recounted. With characteristic wit, Ai turned the joke back on his captors. “I said now I’m just like you.” 

Their response? “They laughed,” he said.