Ai Weiwei, Tax Evasion Appeal Rejected, But I ‘Morally’ Won the Case

The artist’s appeal of a tax evasion fine may have been rejected, but he tells Dan Levin he won anyway.

A local court Friday ruled against the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s appeal of a multimillion-dollar fine for tax evasion, further proof, he says, of the coordinated campaign by Chinese government to punish him for speaking out against corruption and human rights abuses.

The authorities imposed the tax fine on the world-famous artist in 2011 after he was detained without charge for three months, during which time he was interrogated daily about his political activities.

Chinese officials then denied he was held on political grounds and ordered an art firm owned by Ai’s wife to pay a fine of 15 million yuan, or $2.4 million. The move was met with cynicism by activists who claimed it was merely a way for the government to save face while punishing the artist for his criticism of the regime.

The Beijing Fake Cultural Development firm appealed the ruling and filed a lawsuit against the tax bureau for violating numerous laws pertaining to witnesses, evidence, and case documents.

In an attempt to stifle reaction to Friday’s ruling, Ai was barred from the court, which was surrounded by security forces who blocked roads and sent diplomats and journalists away. Ai’s wife was allowed inside the court along with the couple’s lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, a renowned human rights advocate who also has been detained by police. Following the ruling, Pu said the police prohibited him from seeing any of the original evidence and violated their right to appeal. “The court and the taxation bureau are in cahoots,” Pu told The Daily Beast.

In an interview, Ai said the court’s decision was a disappointment but not a shock. “We could predict the verdict,” he said. “But at same time we’re always surprised that this nation can function when the judicial system is so corrupt and justice is so hard to reach.”

Once hailed by Chinese authorities for his artistic talents, Ai rose to international fame when he helped design the Beijing Olympic stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. The government’s attitude toward him changed when Ai, a renowned sculptor and painter, began using his fame and art to highlight government corruption. That trajectory picked up steam following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when he launched an investigation into the many poorly built schools that had collapsed, killing thousands of children. The Chinese government has never disclosed the number of children who died in the disaster and has imprisoned activists who asked for justice. A deft user of social media, Ai has focused his attention on exposing government wrongdoing and championed the importance of rule of law and judicial independence.

Even as his star has risen internationally, the government increasingly has tried to silence him through a meticulous harassment campaign, shutting down his Chinese blog, assaulting him, and intimidating his supporters. When those attempts failed, the authorities detained him. Ai later recounted how he was watched 24 hours a day during those three months by rotating pairs of guards, who hovered over him while he slept and stood next to him in the shower. Upon his release the government forbade him from leaving Beijing for a year, issued the tax evasion fine, and barred him from speaking with journalists—an order he swiftly disobeyed.

Speaking by phone, Ai said the ruling will ultimately come back to haunt the authorities. “I feel sad for them,” he said. “Young people know what is happening. We morally won the case anyway, and I’m very aware the government really feels paralyzed.”

Ai said he plans to move forward with more legal tactics to show the world how the government makes a mockery of China’s judicial system.

As for his fate, Ai didn’t sound too optimistic. “Maybe I have no future,” he said. “I just have to deal with what’s happening now.”