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Sep 19, 10:49 AM EDT

Artist says tax case shows China's dark side


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BEIJING (AP) -- China's best-known dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, has accused his country's Communist government of losing its principles and using underhanded ploys to try to silence critics.

The artist, whose supporters say he was hit with a $2.4 million tax bill in retribution for his outspokenness and activism, also criticized fellow Chinese artists for failing to speak up while he was singled out.

Yet Ai said he was optimistic about the country's younger generation in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press this week at his Beijing studio, where he talked about the English-language version of a Danish documentary released this week about his tax case.

"Before, I was naive enough to think that a political regime, a strong society, would never use unsavory means in legal cases. If you bring a charge against someone, you do it in the normal way. You should not defame and frame someone and silence their voice," Ai said.

The outspoken artist has been virtually silenced in China over the past couple of years, though he occasionally speaks to foreign journalists, and Ai said he was warned by police not to conduct the AP interview or face unspecified consequences.

"From what we see today, (the government) has completely lost its basic principles," he said, referring to the frequent declarations of Chinese leaders that ruling Communist Party members are honest and above-board people.

The 86-minute film, "Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case," by director Andreas Johnsen, opens with 2011 footage of Ai emerging from 81 days of detention amid a throng of journalists. Already a long-time government critic, he had been detained with other activists and dissidents amid calls for social and political reforms in China following the Arab Spring uprisings, but then was let go without charge.

After his release, authorities slapped his company with a $2.4 million bill for back taxes and fines in a closed-door hearing. Ai unsuccessfully fought the tax assessment in court.

"The legal system is not legal," said Johnsen, the film's director, who chronicled Ai's judicial fight, his hopes and frustrations, and his everyday life under tight government surveillance. "They were just making the rules along the way according to what they needed."

In recent years, Chinese authorities have increasingly targeted activists and dissidents, as well as their relatives, on non-political charges such as disturbing public order or business-related misdeeds, instead of free speech and political dissent charges that would draw international condemnation.

Last year, a Beijing court convicted the brother-in-law of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo on business fraud charges and sentenced him to 11 years in jail.

The iconoclastic Ai has been outspoken in art and commentary since his youth, something he likely inherited from his father, a famous poet who frequently ran afoul of authorities.

As part of his artwork, Ai has been photographed giving the finger to Tiananmen Gate, the symbolic heart of China's political establishment.

Ai wrote scathing commentary via social media from 2005 until 2009, when his microblogs in China were shut down. He especially angered authorities with his high-profile campaign to highlight the shoddily built classrooms that crumbled in a 2008 earthquake and killed thousands of students.

The 57-year-old said he did not seek to be an activist.

"All my feelings and viewpoints are genuine. They are all opinions that I, as an individual or as someone linked to artwork, would normally have," he said. "But because of repeated crackdowns and bans, I have been turned into someone unusual, and I have become a kind of activist."

Ai himself has turned many of ordeals into art.

In May 2013, he released an obscenity-filled music video mocking state power called "Dumbass." He said it was inspired by his 81-day detention in which he was guarded by men in close proximity as he ate, slept, paced, showered and even sat on a toilet.

He also produced a six-part diorama reconstructing scenes from his jail cell. Other works include surveillance cameras and handcuffs, symbolizing the repressive regime he is living under.

The government has blacklisted him from any mention in state media, and he is not allowed to post anything on China's social media. Authorities also have confiscated his passport so that he cannot go abroad where he might speak freely.

His tribulations - reported by foreign media - have raised his profile overseas, and Ai said he is thankful for the support from foreign artists and organizations. Yet he says he has been disheartened by the indifference of fellow Chinese artists.

"The biggest trauma is not how I was treated in jail but how I saw that the Chinese artists, as a group, pretended that nothing happened," Ai said. "They are still celebrating some fake performances in auctions and international art markets, but they show complete indifference to this society or what's happened to an individual member of their profession. That would be impossible in any other society."

Ai said he believed the people's pursuit of freedom and happiness will eventually prevail.

"I may have underestimated myself. Given how seriously the government is treating me, it seems I do make a difference. Every day, there are young people who approach me to shake hands with me, to have photos taken with me or to seek an autograph," Ai said. "They all voice their support."

When news got out about his hefty fine and tax bill, about 30,000 people expressed support online and offered donations and small loans totaling more than $9 million yuan ($1.5 million). In the documentary, money folded into paper airplanes was flown over the wall into his studio. His tax bill is now paid.

"The government cannot suppress them all," Ai said. "They are all normal people."

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The documentary is available at http://thefakecase.com/

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