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Ai Weiwei Tax Donations Pouring In

A man waits to contribute money at Beijing home of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Nov. 7, 2011.

A man waits to contribute money at Beijing home of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Nov. 7, 2011.

Thousands of Chinese added their contributions Tuesday to help artist Ai Weiwei pay a massive tax bill that many see as an attempt to silence the outspoken social critic.

At Ai's Beijing art studio, volunteer Liu Yanping says more than 20,000 contributions arrived from within China and around the world.

"As of last night at about 10 o'clock we have received over 5.6 million yuan in over 20,000 transactions," said Liu via a translator. The contributions total more than $900,000.

Ai, who was held without charges for almost three months earlier this year, has been ordered to pay $2.4 million in back taxes by next week.

Political conspiracy suspected

Ai's supporters, however, suspect the tax bill was manufactured to justify his detention for political reasons. Ai says the authorities have never explained the basis for the bill and that they are still holding his accounting records.

The artist told Reuters news agency in an interview Tuesday that he has not yet decided whether to pay the bill, explaining that if he pays the bill it would make it possible to appeal the bill. But he said police have told him that paying the bill would be taken as an admission of guilt. He has also been told if he doesn't pay, the affair will be treated as a criminal matter.

Ai's international supporters worry the high-profile donation campaign may lead to more legal trouble for the artist. But Swiss art gallery owner Urs Meile, who works with Ai, says the man is driven by the same forces that made him China's most celebrated modern artist.

"Of course he is afraid somehow, but on the other hand he says 'I cannot stop doing these things,'" said Meile. "It is like an artist who wants to do an art work, nothing can keep him away from doing certain things."

At Ai's Beijing studio, some acknowledge that the donation campaign has become more than just an attempt to help a wealthy artist with a tax bill.

Volunteer Zhang Haining says by making small contributions, the thousands of Chinese can forge a powerful and fearless political force.

"I want to stir the hearts of the Chinese people, and right now I hope that the Chinese people won't be too numb," said Zhang. "If everyone makes their small contribution, I think it can become a powerful force -- one that is fearless."

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.