11/05/2011 05:21 am ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

Chinese Citizens Pay Ai Weiwei's Taxes

Not since Spartacus has there been such a widespread act of generosity for an activist and leader. On November 1, the Chinese government declared that dissident artist and activist Ai Weiwei owed $2.4 million dollars in unpaid taxes, and had to pay it back within the next 2 weeks. The utter impossibility of this ultimatum was assuaged when Chinese citizens began donating money to repay the artist's debt in what began to seem like a performance piece of its own.

The movement began when Hu Jia, a human rights activist, announced via microblog that he had donated $158 to Ai. “He wanted to express his gratitude and respect for what Ai has done,” his wife explained. After only a few more hours More than 1,600 supporters had pledged or donated $63,500.

The donations are coming in on a Chinese Twitter-like website called Sina Weibo, where Ai's supporters can donate electronically or through post office. Messages accompany many of the donations, such as this one from @ihnsfa: “We are doing performance art with him to mock the autocratic state machine." Following Ai's example, the people of China are finding legal actions to fight legal injustices.

Although Ai is unsure if the donations, however, overwhelming will ever add up to the immense sum demanded, he is touched by his supporters' momentum and bravery. He told the Christian Science Monitor: "China is really hopeful. Lots of people have made their own decisions” about the justice of his treatment and “have their own moral judgment that is so strong and so generous.”

Ai Weiwei, the provocateur known for artworks that question the Chinese government's policies and values, was arrested last April in Beijing. The charges were for tax evasion, although Ai declared "China always uses tax issues to cover up political issues." After 81 days in solitary confinement, Ai was released and returned to government-prohibited means of communication such as Twitter, interviews and subversive art. It was not long before the government cracked down on the recently named 'Most Powerful Person in the Art World' once again.

Originally Ai was said to owe the government $770,000 in tax evasion charges, yet on November 1 this amount skyrocketed to $2.4 million, with a two week deadline. In an interview with CNN, Ai added that authorities "declined their demand to publish the accounting records and other evidence that lead to the tax evasion charge." Not sure how to go about repaying the debt, Ai originally told the New York Times "his mother had offered to sell the house left to her by his father, a poet revered by the Communist Party." Now that may not be necessary.

But even if his sympathizers get their message across, he's unsure of his own future at the hands of the Chinese government; he told The New York Times: "This is my fate,” he said weakly, “and I have to face it.”

CORRECTION: The article initially stated that Ai was arrested in Hong Kong. In fact, he was arrested in Beijing, on the way to Hong Kong.