If the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has the guts to stand up to the might of the People’s Republic of China, then the visa department of HM embassy in Beijing should have known it would have a fight on its hands if it refused him a six-month visa to visit the UK. So it has proved.
With almost artistic skill, Ai has simply published the rather heavy-handed letter he received from someone styled the “Entry Claims Manager”, and offered the British diplomatic service up to international ridicule. If the embassy claims that Ai has been economical with the truth in declaring he had no involvement or difficulties with the Chinese authorities, it has misunderstood his case.
His 81-day detention under house arrest on alleged crimes of bigamy and tax evasion did not lead to a criminal conviction, which the visa application process states should be declared.
The artist, who has had his passport returned after it was taken in 2011 during a government crackdown on political activists, was fined for tax evasion in a civil case in 2012. The artist lost an appeal against the fine – a move which human rights campaigners have argued was politically motivated and imposed in retaliation for his criticism of the Chinese government. His declaration of character was technically, and legally, correct: he had not been through due process and convicted by a court of any such crime.
The 20-day visa that Ai has been granted, instead of the six-month work permit he applied for, means he will not be in this country when President Xi Jinping makes a state visit in October. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, it will save the government’s blushes.
If the decision was made to find favour with the Chinese, it will have important ramifications. The artist will be unable to supervise the installation of the landmark solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts which has a private preview on 15 September. It is a wasted opportunity for the British Government to offer its support to such an important political and cultural figure. While there is no reason to believe that Ai would want to relocate and seek asylum in Britain, he should know that many in this country would be happy to have him remain here for as long as he wishes.
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