An incredible social movement in China has brought Internet users together to help pay a dissident artist’s tax bill, demonstrating the considerable power of social media in the country in the process.
On the day that the Chinese government announced it has secured an agreement with China’s top Internet companies to increase online censorship, China’s social media users sent out a powerful reminder of their own influence.
Ai Weiwei has a long history with Chinese authorities. The outspoken artist, whose latest run-in with the state saw him presented with a $2.3 million tax bill last week, has been aided by Sina Weibo microbloggers and Internet users who, in just three days, have donated an estimated $830,000 (5.29 million yuan) to help cover the bill, according to Time Out Hong Kong.
In presenting the massive bill to him, the Chinese government had moved to keep Weiwei under its control only to find that the last year of events — during which he has been impronised without trial and unsuccessfully banned from microblogging — have seen Ai Weiwei become a symbol of the struggle social media users and advocates of free of speech face in China.
At the time of writing, more than 18,800 Weibo users have donated money towards Weiwei’s tax bill - dispelling rumours that his struggles against the government are little known in the country.
While the rate of donations may slow, the feeling that the government is trying bully Weiwei out of the way is such that many are donating to his cause to signal discontent with the state’s heavy-handed approach. Given that authorities show no sign of letting up in their battle to censor social media, ‘protest’ contributions to Weiwei’s fund are likely to continue.
The situation begs the question of how the state might react if the bill was paid, based largely on donations. There is still a considerable way to go first.
Update: in a bid to reduce the profile of the campaign, the Chinese government has censored search terms relating to the donations, as Beijing-based lawyer William Farris points out on Google+. While Sina Weibo has deleted the accounts of Weiwei and close associate Liu Yanping.