Ai Weiwei’s taxing conundrum | The World | International affairs blog from the FT – FT.com

The Chinese are voting again. Having lost their chance to determine the outcome of Happy Girls, an audience-participation talent show that has mysteriously vanished from next year’s schedules, they are voting instead for Ai Weiwei, the artist and thorn in Beijing’s side.

Mr Ai was recently slapped with a tax bill of $2.4m, a financial summons that followed several months’ imprisonment earlier this year. But Chinese people in their thousands are offering to help the controversial artist pay. The BBC reports that, according to Liu Yanping, a volunteer at the artist’s studio in Beijing, nearly 20,000 people have donated a total of $790,000, and counting.

Most have done so by electronic transfer. Some – presumably technophobes – have simply lobbed money over the wall and into the artist’s compound. A few notes, folded into paper planes, have sailed over the wall too.

Last week, Mr Ai, whose release from prison was conditional on his not talking to the press, told the FT: “When Chinese people have no other way to express themselves, this is the way they feel they can vote to express their dissatisfaction.” That probably constituted talking to the press. In fact, he has done several recent interviews in defiance of the ban.

Whether Mr Ai will have the last laugh is not yet clear. The Global Times, an English-language tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, wrote: “This event has been interpreted by some foreign media as the Chinese people donating to Ai’s cause. The action has also been regarded as a special protest by the artist.” But it cautioned: “Since he’s borrowing from the public…. some experts have pointed out this could be an example of illegal fundraising.”

So China’s most famous artist, known for his humorous, provocative and occasionally puzzling art, may be damned if he pays his taxes and damned if he doesn’t. Now that’s just surreal.

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