China’s best-known artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of losing its principles and using underhand ploys to try and silence critics.
The artist, who supporters say was hit with a US$2.4 million tax bill in retribution for his outspoken activism, also criticized fellow Chinese artists for failing to speak up when he was singled out.
However, Ai said he was optimistic about the younger generation in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press this week at his Beijing studio, where he talked about the English-language version of a Danish documentary released this week about his tax case.
“Before, I was naive enough to think that a political regime, a strong society, would never use unsavory means in legal cases. If you bring a charge against someone, you do it in the normal way. You should not defame and frame someone and silence their voice,” Ai said.
The outspoken artist has been virtually silenced in China over the past couple of years, though he occasionally speaks to foreign journalists, and Ai said he was warned by police not to conduct this interview or he would face unspecified consequences.
“From what we see today, [the government] has completely lost its basic principles,” he said, referring to the frequent declarations of Chinese leaders that CCP members are honest and above-board people.
The 86-minute film, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, directed by Andreas Johnsen, opens with 2011 footage of Ai emerging from 81 days of detention amid a throng of journalists. Already a long-time government critic, he had been detained with other activists and dissidents amid calls for social and political reforms in China following the Arab Spring uprisings, but then was let go without charge.
After his release, authorities slapped his company with a US$2.4 million bill in back taxes and fines in a closed-door hearing. Ai unsuccessfully fought the tax assessment in court.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have increasingly targeted activists and dissidents, as well as their relatives, on non-political charges such as disturbing public order or business-related misdeeds, instead of free speech and political dissent charges that would draw international condemnation.
Last year, a Beijing court convicted the brother-in-law of the Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiabo (劉曉波) of fraud charges and sentenced him to 11 years in jail.
The iconoclastic Ai has been outspoken in art and commentary since his youth. In one of his works, Ai was photographed giving the finger to Tiananmen, the symbolic heart of China’s political establishment.
Ai wrote scathing commentary via social media from 2005 to 2009, the year his microblogs in China were shut down. He especially angered authorities with his high-profile campaign to highlight the shoddily built classrooms that crumbled in a 2008 earthquake and killed thousands of students.
The 57-year-old said he did not seek to be an activist.
“All my feelings and viewpoints are genuine. They are all opinions that I, as an individual or as someone linked to artwork, would normally have,” he said. “But because of repeated crackdowns and bans, I have been turned into someone unusual, and I have become a kind of activist.”
The government has blacklisted him from any mention in state media, and the artist is not allowed to post anything on China’s social media. Authorities have confiscated his passport so that he cannot go abroad where he might speak freely.
His tribulations — reported in detail by foreign media — have raised his profile overseas, and Ai said he is thankful for support from foreign artists and organizations. However, he says he has been disheartened by the indifference of fellow Chinese artists.
“The biggest trauma is not how I was treated in jail but how I saw that the Chinese artists, as a group, pretended that nothing happened,” Ai said.
Ai said he believed people’s pursuit of freedom and happiness would eventually prevail.
“I may have underestimated myself. Given how seriously the government is treating me, it seems I do make a difference. Every day, there are young people who approach me to shake hands with me, to have photos taken with me or to seek autograph,” he said. “They all voice their support.”
When news got out about his hefty fine and tax bill, about 30,000 people expressed support online and offered donations and small loans totaling more than 9 million yuan (US$1.5 million). In the documentary, money folded into paper airplanes was flown over the wall into his studio.
His tax bill is now paid.
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