BEIJING (Reuters) - China has ordered dissident artist Ai Weiwei to pay 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) in back taxes and fines allegedly due from the company he works for, Ai said on Tuesday, a case supporters said was part of Beijing’s efforts to muzzle government critics.
The 54-year-old artist, famous for his work on the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing, was detained without charge for two months this year in a move that drew criticism from Western governments. He was released in late June.
Ai told Reuters he received the notice from the tax authorities that described his title as the “actual controller” for Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., which has helped produce Ai’s internationally renowned art and designs.
The company is owned by his wife, Lu Qing, who is the firm’s legal representative.
“They made up this new title,” Ai said. “I‘m a designer for the company. I‘m not a director, or even a manager. Of course, I know this matter is targeted at me.”
“They said: ‘We’re fining the company, not you.’ But I said: ‘Why was my name singled out by the government, at the foreign ministry briefings?’ But they still said to me: ‘This has nothing to do with you.'”
Rights activists said the charges were a pretext for silencing the artist who has been a fierce critic of the government.
“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 coordinator for Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Ai said he has not received any evidence of tax evasion.
“Up till this day, Fake Company has not seen any account statements,” Ai said. “I told them: ‘This is not reasonable.'”
“But they told me: ‘If the country says you have evaded taxes, then you must have evaded them. Why don’t you lose hope? This country will never change its ways.'”
The Beijing Local Taxation Bureau informed Ai that he had to pay about 5.3 million yuan in back taxes, 6.8 million yuan in fines and about 3 million yuan in late payments. He said he has been given 15 days to pay up.
Ai said he was unsure whether he would pay the money owed, adding that he needed to consult his lawyer and accountant.
“If it’s a tax problem, I’ll pay. But if it’s not, I won’t pay,” Ai said. “This whole matter is ridiculous.”
Ai said if he does not pay the back taxes and fines, Beijing’s tax authorities will pass the case on to the public security bureau, which could hold a re-trial.
Beijing authorities held a closed tax evasion hearing in July. The company’s lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, told Reuters it was illegal for them to do so.
Ai was barred from attending the closed-door hearing, but his wife, Lu, was present.
Ai tweeted on Tuesday that the authorities had threatened the company’s accountant and manager and prevented them from meeting him.
Ai was detained at Beijing airport on April 3, igniting an outcry about China’s tightening grip on dissent which has seen the detention of dozens of rights activists and dissidents.
The bearded, burly artist was the most internationally acclaimed of those detained, and his family has repeatedly said he was targeted for his outspoken criticism of censorship and Communist Party controls.
When Ai was released on bail in June, the government said he remained under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes.
Ai told Reuters previously that he had not received a formal notice to explain “suspected economic crimes.”
Under the conditions of his release, Ai was told by the authorities he is not allowed to speak to foreign media, post messages on Twitter or leave Beijing for a year.
In the past, China has sentenced dissidents for tax evasion and for “suspected economic crimes” in what rights advocates say is retaliation for criticising the government.
($1 = 6.355 Chinese Yuan)
Editing by Ken Wills; Editing by Sugita Katyal