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It's raining money for Ai Weiwei as backers step in

A week after the artist received a £1.48m tax bill, donations are flooding in from his supporters
  • @cliffordcoonan

A week after the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was hit with a 15 million yuan (£1.48m) tax bill, the money is landing in the courtyard of his home in the form of paper planes, as wads of cash in envelopes or wrapped around fruit. It's also coming by bank transfer and online payments.

"Couples have driven by on motorcycles and [the passenger] has thrown the donation from the pillion," Mr Ai, who has earned government ire for his relentless criticism, said in an interview with The Independent yesterday.

"I'm surprised and I'm happy. This shows that nobody believes this wrong accusation by the police," said Mr Ai, who spent 81 days in custody earlier this year on charges of tax evasion, before being handed the huge tax bill. The 54-year-old said he was "very touched" by the donations which have flooded in since an online campaign began late last week to help him to clear the fine.

Mr Ai was arrested at Beijing airport in April at the same time as scores of other rights activists were rounded up amid concerns that the Arab Spring could spread to China. His arrest caused a global outcry, as campaigners, artists and governments complained about his treatment.

After his release, Mr Ai was muzzled and told to stay away from social networks such as Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, and for a while he seemed to have heeded the order. But his supporters didn't believe it would last.

Mr Ai, who helped to design the "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium and then distanced himself from it as he felt it was too totalitarian, insists he has done nothing wrong and that the authorities are trying to silence him. In recent weeks, he has become more vocal, and his comments more pointed.

So far, fans have donated more than £500,000 to help to pay the bill and there are no signs of a let-up. The flood of donations amounted to a loss of face for the state over the way he has been treated, Mr Ai said.

"The problem is the state has lost credibility. They won't openly discuss the situation," Mr Ai said. "The authorities keep telling me, 'Don't argue,' or they'll change their mind. It's only a few days since they billed me and the whole internet was getting crazy, saying the government has no shame and we'll buy you out because we all know you and love you and support you."

"Some old people have given their retirement money. Some people have given me their first month's salary. There are tens of thousands of people trying to lend money. I say, 'If you want to, I will borrow the money and I will repay you.' They say, 'You can pay us back in 100 years.' It's very touching," he said.

Some of China's best-known dissenting voices are among the donors. Hu Jia, who was released from prison earlier this year after serving time for subversion, tweeted how he had donated 1,000 yuan (£98) to Mr Ai to express "my gratitude and respect for what he has done".

Another democracy campaigner, Ai Xiaoming, helped to raise 400,000 yuan (£39,000) for the artist. "I haven't got the final number... We don't have enough people to count it. We were not prepared for this," Mr Ai said.

There has been no official reaction, but in an editorial in the state-run Global Times, unnamed experts said Mr Ai could be guilty of "illegal fundraising". The commentary also said the movement did not represent the broader Chinese population.