The Chinese government has ordered artist Ai Weiwei to pay taxes and fines totalling $2.3 million it says are owed by a company under his control.
Ai, an internationally acclaimed contemporary artist who has become a prominent critic of China’s ruling Communist Party, said on Tuesday that he been given 15 days by tax authorities to settle the 15 million yuan bill, or risk going to prison.
The move comes after the 54-year-old spent 81 days in detention earlier this year as part of what Beijing said was an investigation into his financial affairs, drawing condemnation from human rights groups and western governments.
Ai said on Tuesday that the tax bill was part of an effort by authorities to “crush” dissenting opinion.
“During the 81 days (in detention) all the police talked about was subversion of state power, so I am very surprised they are avoiding talk about politics, (and now talk) about this tax,” Ai said.
“This is a signal that the state can seize anybody who has a different political opinion. They use tax or whatever reason to make them look bad or to crush them.”
The Chinese government has detained or questioned hundreds of lawyers, activists and other intellectuals since the onset of anti-government throughout the Arab world last spring.
Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., the company under investigation which handles Ai’s financial affairs, is owned by his wife, Lu Qing, who is also the company’s legal representative.
Lu attended a closed tax evasion hearing in July from which Ai was barred. A report published by state-run news agency Xinhua alleged the company had destroyed accounting documents.
Ai said he had been given no account statements to corroborate the charges and said he was neither a director nor a manager at the company.
Taking to his twitter account on Tuesday, he said authorities had threatened the company’s accountant and manager to prevent them from meeting with the artist.
Human rights groups also criticised Chinese authorities for targeting Ai.
“It appears that the government is set to destroy him, if not economically then at least by setting up the stage to later arrest him for failing to pay back taxes,” said Songlian Wang, research co-ordinator for Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Ai rose to international prominence when he helped design the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Earlier this year, Ai was named the “most powerful” artist in the world by ArtReview magazine in the UK, a move that Beijing labelled as more political than artistic.