BEIJING — Thousands of people have sent more than $800,000 to Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, some tossing cash folded into airplanes over his gate, to help him pay a tax bill they see as government harassment, he said Monday.
A state-run newspaper criticized the outpouring and warned it could be illegal.
The donation campaign — also in the form of wire transfers and cash stuffed into envelopes or wrapped around fruit thrown into his yard — is rare for Chinese dissidents because of the threat of retaliation that comes with supporting government critics.
Nearly 20,000 people have sent more than $840,000 since he announced a week ago that the Beijing tax bureau was demanding that he pay $2.4 million in back taxes and fines, Mr. Ai said.
“This shows that a group of people who want to express their views are using their money to cast their votes,” Mr. Ai said. “It shows that in the Internet age, society will have its own judgment and its own values. People are using these methods to re-examine the accusation that I evaded taxes.”
Mr. Ai, an internationally acclaimed conceptual artist, was detained for nearly three months this year amid a crackdown on dissent, setting off concern well beyond the arts circles and civil rights community. The detention and claims of tax evasion have been interpreted by activists as a way to punish him for his criticism of the government.
Mr. Ai said he would not treat the money from supporters as donations, but as loans that he would repay.
On Monday, staff and volunteers at Mr. Ai’s Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. design company were sorting through hundreds of wire transfer receipts and sending off packets of sunflower seeds in return, a reference to Mr. Ai’s past installation involving 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds at London’s Tate Modern. Some donated bank notes were rolled into balls and others were folded into paper airplanes.
Volunteer Liu Yanping said many of the donations have been accompanied by messages of support, including “Brother, let me be your creditor,” and “The whole family has been mobilized, everyone will be creditors,” Mr. Liu said.
Mr. Ai has demanded that police return the account books they seized from his studio when they detained him and that they allow him to meet with his former office manager and accountant.
Calls to the local tax bureau rang unanswered.