An attempt by China's outspoken artist and social activist Ai Weiwei to challenge a multimillion tax evasion fine has hit an apparent dead end: the authorities have required him to produce a company stamp which was confiscated months ago by police.
Last month, authorities in Beijing upheld a U.S. $2.4 million tax evasion fine issued to Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., a company which Ai founded, and which is now legally owned by his wife, Lu Qing.
Now, a Beijing court has ruled that Ai's lawsuit challenging the fine is invalid in the absence of the company seal.
"If the Chaoyang district court won't accept the case because of the matter of a company seal, then this is too riduculous," Ai's lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said in an interview on Thursday.
"The court itself didn't even sign the document, which should give you a clue as to what is going on."
Ai and his lawyers have said the tax charges are a political backlash against his vocal activism on behalf of China's least-privileged people.
The bill and fine were issued to Ai's design company following the artist's 81-day detention by police at a secret location last year, which sparked an international outcry that prompted an angry response from Beijing.
The Fake company seal was confiscated by police during this time, according to Ai.
"All that has to happen is that the court has to confirm that the seal is no longer in the company's possession," Pu said. "This is no reason to refuse to accept the lawsuit ... under the provisions made by the Administrative Appeals Law."
He said China's judicial system has deteriorated over the past five or six years, during which the government has emphasised "maintaining stability" over any other priority.
"We have got further from the rule of law," Pu said. "But I still think there is something inappropriate in their blatant refusal to accept the suit."
The tax bill prompted tens of thousands of Ai's supporters to send small donations that ended up totaling nearly 8.7 million yuan ($1.4 million), which was used to pay a guarantee to the tax bureau. Some donations were folded into paper airplanes or wrapped around fruit and thrown over the gate at his home.
He was also given a symbolic 100 euro (U.S. $137) donation from the German government's human rights commissioner.
Hangzhou-based writer Zan Aizong said the authorities have continually sought to make life difficult for Ai, and that the issue goes far beyond the simple matter of a tax fine.
"Ai Weiwei is very famous, and the authorities have a problem with that," Zan said. "The trouble is, Ai just keeps getting more and more famous."
"He has become a symbol of the fact that, during the Internet age, you can't stop the flow of information online, even if traditional media aren't reporting something."
"His case against the tax fine is really a continuation of all his previous actions; it proves he is a citizen," he said.
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.