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China hits Ai Weiwei with $2 million tax bill

Less than a week after the outspoken artist's release from months of detention, China's tax authorities present a bill for unpaid taxes and fines

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Recently released from Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei faces tax evasion allegations of up to $2 million. Since his return from detainment last week, Ai himself has remained silent on the issue. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing tax authorities are seeking about $2 million in unpaid taxes and fines from the Chinese artist and government critic Ai Weiwei, who was released on bail last week after almost three months in detention, people close to Ai said Tuesday.

Chinese authorities said that the 54-year-old artist had confessed to tax evasion and promised to pay the tax debt, but his family has denied the charges, according to BBC News. Activists have denounced the accusation as a pretext for detaining Ai, who spoke out against the government and its repression of civil liberties.

According to the New York Times:

In a telephone interview, Gao Ying, Mr. Ai’s mother, said two tax bureau officials came to the door of his studio on Monday with documents claiming that his company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., owed nearly 5 million renminbi, or about $770,000, in back taxes and an additional 7.3 million renminbi, or about $1.1 million, in penalties.

According to his mother, Ai didn't sign the documents. Ai's family says the tax demand covers the past 10 years, and they wonder why the bill is being presented at this time. They also say that the company involved in the tax demand is controlled by Ai's wife, not by the artist himself.

Since he returned home last week, Ai hasn't spoken about the case or about his disappearance, which legal experts have described as a violation of Chinese law.

(In a recent article, "How China silences its fiercest critics," GlobalPost said, "Scores of critics of the regime have been muzzled and gagged through various means. In every case, it appears authorities have made it clear the risk of speaking out is greater than the burden of keeping quiet.")

His silence is interpreted to be a condition of his release, which came shortly before the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, began an official visit to Europe, where Ai’s detention has been strongly criticized. In addition to what was described as “his good attitude in confessing his crimes,” the official Xinhua news agency said Ai’s release was because of his poor health. Ai is diabetic.

Ai, who has shown his work in London, New York and Berlin, has earned large amounts of money selling pieces at auctions and through galleries, according to the Guardian. Last year, he filled the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern gallery in London with millions of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. At an auction in February, 100kg of the seeds sold for £349,250.

On Tuesday, Liu Xiaoyuan, a rights defender, began a campaign on Twitter to help Ai raise the money he reportedly owes in taxes and fines, according to the New York Times:

“Ai Weiwei has almost 100,000 followers on Twitter. If each of them donated a one-hundred thousandth of the total amount, we could help him to pay off the fine,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is like a micro-donation. I’m just showing some micro-support.”