Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned artist and activist. Born in Beijing in 1957, as a child he lived in Xinjiang with his family when his father, the poet Ai Qing, was exiled under counter-revolutionary charges. After the Cultural Revolution, Ai Qing was rehabilitated and the family returned to Beijing. Ai enrolled briefly in the Beijing Film Academy and then moved to New York City in 1981. He photographed rioters in Tompkins Square Park, watched the Iran-Contra televised hearings, and participated in a hunger strike in Washington, D.C. to protest the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989.
In 1993, as his father was ailing, Ai returned to Beijing. An intensely productive period of activity in art, architecture, publishing, and curating ensued. Ai built his now-iconic studio at 258 Caochangdi on the outskirts of Beijing. A central figure in the experimental East Village artist community, Ai edited three books, the Black, White, and Grey Cover Books, that were instrumental in documenting the practices of young conceptual Chinese artists and introducing them to contemporary American and European artists such as Beuys, Duchamp, and Warhol. In 2004, Ai co-curated the radical, anti-establishment satellite exhibition "Fuck Off" in Shanghai, which drew more attention than the officially sanctioned Shanghai Biennale. His architecture and design practice took off, culminating in his collaboration with internationally renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron on the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium for the Beijing Olympics of 2008. His art has been exhibited at documenta XII in Kassel (2007), the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo (2009), Haus der Kunst in Munich (2009), and the Tate Modern in London (2011).
Ai's first instance of overtly political activity may be traced to his Sina blog which he started upon getting his first computer in 2006, and on which he posted to almost every day for four years. The Internet would become his most powerful weapon for political criticism and civil participation.
On May 12, 2008, a massive magnitude 8.0 earthquake of magnitude devastated China’s Sichuan province. More than 80,000 people died, the majority in the quake’s epicenter of Wenchuan County. Many schoolchildren were crushed in schools that mysteriously collapsed, the likely product of corrupt construction practices between building contractors and local governments. Ai led a “Citizens’ Investigation” into these “tofu buildings,” seeking to compile a list of names and details of the children killed in the earthquake that the government refused to release. Over 100 volunteers joined his investigation as its news spread online. When fellow activist Tan Zuoren was charged with inciting subversion of state power for his own investigations into the earthquake, Ai flew to Chengdu to testify on his behalf. In Chengdu, Ai was assaulted in the middle of the night and detained for several hours in his hotel room by local authorities. He was prevented from testifying, and as a result of the beating he would subsequently have to undergo emergency cranial surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage.
As Ai escalated his criticism of the Chinese authorities, they also stepped up their surveillance and harassment of him both in person and online. His blog was shut down by authorities in May 2009 after one too many acerbic criticisms of the authoritarian Chinese government. Ai lost no time, bounding over the Great Firewall to start up a Twitter account, which today boasts over 200,000 fans. While Jasmine Revolution-inspired protests toppled Middle Eastern dictatorships, Chinese authorities were on high alert, with police regularly visited his studio and harassed his staff. Then, on April 3, 2011, while at the Beijing airport to board a plane to Hong Kong, Ai was detained by police and would disappear for 81 days.
Four of Ai’s associates disappeared along with him: Liu Zhenggang, one of two business partners in the Chinese company Beijing Fake Cultural Development (“Fake Ltd”) for which Ai was a consultant; Hu Mingfen, the company accountant; Wen Tao, a blogger and social commentator in Ai’s studio; and Zhang Jinsong, Ai’s driver. None of their families were officially notified of their whereabouts. Beijing municipal police raided Ai’s studio twice, confiscating 127 items. Lu Qing, Ai’s wife, and several other associates were detained and questioned.
On April 6, Xinhua News Agency reported that “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.”
Ai’s detention caused an international uproar. His disappearance was front-page news in hundreds of newspapers and media sites across the globe. Campaigns calling for his immediate release sprung up all over the world. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Ai’s release, and then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Ai in her criticism of China’s human rights record. Artists and museums vocally petitioned for Ai to be set free. The British artist Anish Kapoor and the French artist Daniel Buren both cancelled upcoming exhibitions in China in solidarity with Ai.
On May 15, 2011, Ai’s wife Lu Qing was allowed to visit him in an unknown location. A month later, on June 22, Ai was released on bail with a gag order forbidding him to speak to media.
On November 1, 2011, the Second Tax Inspection Bureau of the Beijing Local Tax Bureau issued the verdict that Fake Ltd. was guilty of tax evasion. The company was required to pay 5.26 million RMB in back taxes, 3.2 million RMB as late payment penalty and 6.77 million RMB as a fine, totaling 15.22 million RMB (USD 2.4 million).
When the fine was announced, Ai’s fans put on an overwhelming show of support by sending him thousands of cash donations totaling 9 million RMB within 10 days. The 30,000 contributions included paper planes made of folded bills left at his studio door and thrown over his garden wall. Ai declared the donations “loans” and issued designed “loan receipts” to each creditor.
Fake Ltd. appealed the verdict. In an unusual turn of events, the Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court agreed to hear the case, but upheld the Tax Bureau’s verdict on July 20. Fake Ltd. filed a second, unsuccessful appeal with the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court.
In both trials the prosecution violated numerous laws, administrative regulations, and rules of evidence and procedure. The tax evasion charges against Ai’s company were widely seen as political retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the government. In a May 26, 2012 New York Times article recounting his experience in detention, Ai states that his interrogators had primarily questioned him about his political activism. They said, “Your real crime will be subversion of state power.”