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How Chinese activist Ai Weiwei became an Internet master

John D. Sutter, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ai Weiwei is an artist and Internet activist in China
  • CNN talks with the maker of the upcoming documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"
  • Filmmaker: Ai didn't type or use computers until 2005
  • He has managed to become a social media sensation

(CNN) -- His fans are literally throwing money at him.

The Chinese artist, activist and Internet sensation Ai Weiwei has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from fans who want to help him pay back taxes of $2.3 million.

Many are simply throwing the money into his Beijing compound.

"His supporters have folded 100 yuan notes -- the equivalent of $15.75 -- into paper airplanes that glided into the compound. Others wrapped the money around pieces of fruit and hurled it over the wall," the LA Times wrote on its World Now blog. "Or more traditionally Chinese, they stuffed it into red envelopes."

Ai Weiwei pays $1.3M tax bond over jail fears

If you're not one of his 110,000 Twitter followers, you may never have heard of Ai. But the architect who designed the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 has become one of China's most noted political dissidents and online activists.

Chinese donate money to Ai Weiwei
Al Weiwei's $2.3B bill for back taxes

At the recent PopTech conference in Maine, CNN sat down with Alison Klayman, who spent several years following Ai for an upcoming documentary called "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," to learn more about his fame in China and his mastery of the Internet.

"The truth is I don't believe it's his art -- in terms of what's shown in a museum -- that may have put him in the position that he's in," Klayman said, referring to Ai's three-month detention, which ended in June, and the fact that he's been targeted by Chinese authorities as a dissident.

"It's really about how his life is his art. It's about his activities, how he gives interviews very freely. He does not self-censor what he thinks," she said. "It's also the organizing he's done online. Part of his art includes underground documentaries that he films with collaborators and posts online for free. They have to do with the questions and conversation that he curates online -- first on his blog, until it was shut down, and now on Twitter."

Ai was able to use the Internet, to a degree, to circumvent authorities, she said.

"In a society where all official media is subject to censorship -- from micro-blogs up to party papers -- that's also an incredibly subversive thing to be able to connect to people," Klayman said. "And the truth is censorship cannot be an all-knowing eye, and people are having very interesting conversations even within the firewall -- and on Twitter, which is blocked in China, so people have to use technology to go outside the firewall."

Ai came late to technology but adopted it with gusto, she said.

"Ai Weiwei never used a computer -- never really knew how to type -- before 2005," she said. "And in 2005 he was invited by Sina.com, which is a big Internet company in China, to have a celebrity blog. He was a well-known architect and artist, and he decided to take that on. His father was also a poet, so he was also interested in seeing how his writing chops or his literary chops were. And he immediately was drawn to the medium. He's always been looking for ways to communicate -- and suddenly he saw the Internet."

Last year, Klayman asked Ai about the biggest paradigm shift in his life.

"His answer to me was the Internet. 'The Internet is what affected me and has opened up so many doors and has ignited me.'" she said.

"Now, as I'm completing the documentary ... I really understand what that means."

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