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September 23, 2017

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Ai Weiwei makes tax battle a 'social performance'

BEIJING--Dissident artist Ai Weiwei's latest provocative piece was handed to him by the Chinese government: a US$2.4 million tax bill that he says is a trumped-up effort to silence him.

Though jarred after spending nearly three months in police detention this year, he turned the demand into performance art — posting official documents online, tallying loans from supporters and making a video of himself singing an anti-censorship song.

It opened a window on an opaque system, and showed that many in China share his desire for government accountability. Supporters donated more than US$1.3 million (8.5 million yuan) to him in just two weeks, some of it folded into paper airplanes or wrapped around fruit and thrown over his gate.

To Ai, who has created installations around the world but had been able to show little of his work domestically, it is all art — right down to the scathing commentaries against him in the official Global Times newspaper. State media normally decline to acknowledge his existence.

"This has become a social performance and there are so many people involved. Even the Global Times. They are also playing a role in this," Ai said. "This has generated such energy which has never happened in the history of China. If they want to crush somebody, then normally, for that person, what's left there is just silence."

The thrust of the artist's approach is to give the public what he says the authoritarian government denies them — transparency.

When Beijing tax officials delivered the massive bill to him on Nov. 1, scanned versions appeared on his Google profile page within hours. Responses from his company's lawyers and tax office receipts are also posted, as is a daily tally of money that supporters have sent. Volunteers even post pictures of the cash donations that land in his yard.

"What (the authorities) are afraid of the most is transparency and openness and it's the most powerful tool, so we have to do everything in front of the people, so we put our information on the Internet so everybody can see it," he said.

A New York-based art critic with expertise on China says Ai's social media-driven political action of recent years is viewed by many in the West as art.

In 2008, Ai recruited volunteers on Twitter to compile the names of thousands of students who died in poorly built schools that toppled during a massive earthquake in Sichuan. He later made an installation piece out of 9,000 children's backpacks that covered the facade of a German museum and that formed the Chinese characters for: "She lived happily for seven years in this world."

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