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Online And by Paper Airplane, Donations Pour in to Chinese Dissident

In the days since the Chinese government delivered a punitive $2.4 million tax bill to the artist Ai Weiwei, thousands of people have responded by donating money in a gesture that is at once benevolent and subversive.

Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei
Getty Images
Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei

More than 20,000 people have together contributed at least $550,000 since Tuesday, when tax officials gave Mr. Ai 15 days to come up with an amount that was more than three times the sum he was accused of evading in taxes.

“It’s surprising; it has really changed my perspective on people,” he said in a telephone interview on Sunday, describing how scores of supporters, some of whom traveled from distant cities, have been delivering cash to his home.

One of China’s best known artists and a voluble government critic, Mr. Ai was detained in April and held for 81 days at an undisclosed location, ostensibly on tax evasion charges, according to the state-run news media. Mr. Ai insists his prosecution is politically motivated.

During his confinement, he said his questioners were only interested in discussing his activism, particularly his role in the so-called Jasmine Revolution, the call for pro-democracy protests inspired by events in the Arab world. Mr. Ai said he was not involved in organizing the protests, which were effectively stymied by the Chinese authorities.

Since his release in June, Mr. Ai, 54, has kept a low profile, one of the conditions of his bail.

But the imposed silence ill-suited the artist, who has increasingly bridled against the restrictions, among them a prohibition against talking to the news media or communicating publicly through Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service.

Since the amount of his fine became public on Tuesday, Mr. Ai appears to have shed any reluctance to speak out and has criticized the tax penalty as an act of naked retribution for his critiques against the governing Communist Party.

The donations began pouring in on Thursday, many of them delivered electronically and accompanied by politically tinged comments. “You helped them to design the Bird’s Nest, but they sent you into a bird cage,” said one donor, referring to Mr. Ai’s role in designing the Olympic stadium in Beijing.

“You charged them fees, but now they fine you more than hundreds of times that in blood and sweat.”

Some contributions have been small — symbolic, fractional sums of the total — while others have totaled thousands of dollars. Mr. Ai said one businessman offered him 1 million renminbi, about $157,000, but he turned it down, saying he preferred to receive smaller sums. Mr. Ai has insisted on describing the money as loans that he will repay.

On Sunday, after his Weibo account was disabled, dozens of people began arriving at the gate of Mr. Ai’s studio on the outskirts of the capital. He said a number of people had folded 100-renminbi notes into airplanes and tossed them over the walls of his compound.

“Over the past three years, during all the efforts I’ve made, sometimes I felt like I was crying alone in a dark tunnel,” he said.

“But now people have a way to express their true feelings. This is a really, really beautiful event.”