BEIJING -- Beijing tax authorities are seeking nearly $2 million in back taxes and fines from outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was released last week from nearly three months in detention, his close friend said Tuesday.
Ai was released on bail last Wednesday and Chinese authorities said he confessed to tax evasion and pledged to repay the money owed. His family has denied he evaded any taxes and activists have denounced the accusation as a false premise for detaining Ai, who spoke out against the authoritarian government and its repression of civil liberties.
The Beijing Local Taxation Bureau informed Ai that he owed around 5 million yuan ($770,000) in unpaid taxes and would be fined about 7 million yuan ($1.1 million) – totaling just over 12 million yuan ($1.85 million), said Beijing human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan. Liu does not legally represent Ai, but has been a friend and supporter of the artist for many years.
Chinese authorities sometimes try to silence critics by accusing them of tax violations or other nonpolitical crimes.
Ai, who has shown his work in London, New York and Berlin, has earned huge sums selling his work at auctions and through galleries. Last year, Ai filled the Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern art gallery with millions of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. A 100-kilogram pile of the seeds sold for more than $550,000 at a Sotheby's auction in February.
Ai's mother, Gao Ying, said two tax bureau officials delivered the notice to Ai on Monday and asked him to sign it in acknowledgement but he refused. Gao said she was unclear about the specifics in the notice, but that the alleged violations took place over the past decade.
"We don't know anything about these taxes," Gao said. "These taxes date back 10 years. Why, at that time, if they really had not paid their taxes, why did they not say anything about it every year?"
Ai declined to comment, saying the terms of his bail barred him from doing media interviews. Ai was the most high-profile target of the government's nationwide crackdown on bloggers, lawyers and activists aimed at derailing potential democratic uprisings like those sweeping through the Arab world.
Before he disappeared, Ai had been keeping an informal tally of the recent detentions on Twitter.
When he was released, the Chinese Foreign Ministry repeated allegations reported earlier by state media that a company linked to Ai, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., had evaded a "huge amount" of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents.
Previously, his wife said the company, which handles business aspects of Ai's art career, belongs to her.
Calls to the local tax office in Chaoyang district, where Ai's studio is located, rang unanswered Tuesday.
Ai's wife has said that Ai is forbidden to discuss the conditions of his detention and release and is followed by plainclothes officers whenever he leaves the house.
Ai's detention prompted an international outcry among artists, politicians and human rights activists, and Western leaders called it a sign of China's deteriorating human rights situation. His family and supporters say he is being punished for speaking out about the Communist leadership and social problems.
Ai has spoken critically about a number of national scandals, including the deaths of students in shoddily built schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, children killed or sickened by tainted infant formula and a deadly high-rise fire in Shanghai that killed 58 people and was blamed on negligent workers and corrupt inspectors.
In previous cases involving economic crimes that others saw as political persecution, Zhao Yan, a news assistant for The New York Times, was jailed for three years in 2007 on charges of financial fraud. Xu Zhiyong, an outspoken lawyer, was investigated for alleged tax evasion in 2009 but later released.