Paying the price

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am


Some people tied cash to a pear and threw it into the yard of Ai Weiwei's home. Some made planes out of the renminbi notes and 'flew' them into the yard; eight of these planes landed on his lawn. Those who gave money in person queued outside his door. But many more people made donations through an online payment service or the post office, and the remittance receipts arrived in piles at Ai's home, delivered by bemused postmen. For 10 days, an average of over 800,000yuan (HK$980,000) was deposited every day into Ai's bank account. Most of the donors were strangers to Ai; some didn't even leave their name.

This amazing turn of events was inspired by the tax authorities' demand for back taxes and a penalty payment from Beijing Fake Cultural Development, Ai's company.

Beijing's tax authorities say Ai's company owes them a total of 15 million yuan, but the investigation report that led to the conclusion was not shown to even the company's staff. The rest of us have even less idea of the facts. But almost everyone believes the taxmen would not have acted if Ai had not looked into the deaths of children killed when their school buildings collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake; if he hadn't questioned government actions through his art works and in microblogs, or exposed official abuses through documentaries like the one on the trial of fellow activist Tan Zuoren . Many people doubt the tax demand is legitimate.

In discussions with friends, all of them praised the people who gave Ai money for their bravery. Unlike in similar cases in the past, people were openly supporting Ai, admitting to 'lending' him money, and not hiding - even flaunting - their donation receipts. They were not afraid of being 'invited to tea' with the state security department or of being watched. This is a remarkable change of attitude, and suggests ordinary people today are more willing to confront the government.

I wish the discussion could be broadened to consider the nature of taxes. What are taxes, and on what grounds can a government take away the private money of citizens? This of course concerns the legitimacy of taxes that pay for government expenses. Growing up on the mainland, we've all heard slogans such as 'Paying tax is a citizen's legal obligation' and 'Paying tax according to the law is a glorious thing', but few of us know the reasoning behind the words.

The legitimacy of taxes can generally be established in three ways. First is the legitimacy of tax collectors. These tax collectors must be authorised by the people to do so. In a modern democracy, this authorisation is conferred through elections. People who have no right to vote should not have to pay taxes.

Second is the legitimacy of the tax collection itself. Laws and legislative procedures must spell out what taxes may be levied and at what rate, and how they should be collected. In Ai's case, he was first taken away by state security in April and detained for three months, during which he was asked variously about his 'subversive activities' and 'extra marital affairs', before officers took away his company's financial books and accused him of evading taxes. He was told to pay up; the amount was set with no discussion. How is this in any way legal tax collection?

Third is the legitimate use of the taxes. Our taxes pay for government, and for public goods such as infrastructure and welfare services. The allocation of income by a free market is called the first distribution; the collection of taxes for the public good of all is the second distribution, similar in principle to robbing the rich to help the poor. Thus, a government that is seriously corrupt and known for misappropriating public funds really has no right to collect money from its citizens.

Any non-elected government can have little legitimacy as tax collectors. But many people are willing to overlook this aspect of the reasoning; instead, they demand that the government fulfils the other two aspects of their duty. There was much debate earlier this year about whether taxes on the mainland are too high; this tells us that people accept that they have to pay taxes, but just want the tax rates to be more reasonable.

A government that wields its power to collect taxes as a hammer to suppress critics not only abuses the people's acceptance of political reality, but also deals a further blow to its own already crippled legitimacy.

Those government officials who were feeling smug that they had found an economic way to get back at dissidents probably did not know that they had in fact undermined the government's legitimacy, because tax collection is the basis for its existence.

When more and more people become aware that their government is not using the taxes it collects to redistribute income in a way that benefits the public good, but instead uses them as a tool to control people's freedom to think and speak, the government should have reason to worry about its legitimacy.

From this point of view, the people who have given Ai money to repay his 'owed taxes' can be said to be protesting against the tax system.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese