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U.K. restricts visa of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei - Ignorance or politics?

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei talks with media as he arrives at the airport in Munich, Germany, 30 July 2015
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei talks with media as he arrives at the airport in Munich, Germany, 30 July 2015

REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

This statement was originally published on on 30 July 2015.

By Maya Wang

In a gesture of either craven capitulation to Beijing or inexcusable ignorance, UK immigration officials have denied a six-month business visa to the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei on the grounds that he failed to declare "a criminal conviction in China."

Instead, he has been granted only 20 days' stay through late September. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this decision is political, linked to Chinese President Xi Jinping scheduled visit to the UK shortly thereafter.

It's not clear what the UK officials are referring to, given that Ai Weiwei has no criminal conviction in China. According to Ai, the UK Visas and Immigration Department referred in their correspondence with him to "news about Ai's secret detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011 and the tax case for Fake Design."

But this suggests that the UK is accepting China's hopelessly politicized judicial system as legitimate. Ai was secretly and unlawfully held by the Chinese government in 2011 for 81 days, during which he was denied access to a lawyer. The tax case refers to the authorities' order for Ai's company (not Ai himself), Beijing Fake Cultural Development Limited, to repay taxes it allegedly evaded. Throughout this ordeal, Ai was never formally charged or convicted. China's actions against him are clearly motivated by Ai's activism on human rights issues, including his efforts to secure accountability for the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

When reached by the press, the spokesperson for the Home Office failed to address the controversy, insisting that Ai's application has been "considered… in line with the relevant legislation." Presumably coincidentally, this is a phrase Chinese officials frequently use to justify serious human rights violations.

If the UK Visas and Immigration Department has any other evidence to bolster its decision over Ai's visa, it should show it now. Otherwise, it should immediately reverse this decision, based as it is on a false premise. Ai and his lawyer are both adamant he does not have any criminal convictions, and the Chinese authorities have never contradicted him.

The UK welcomes scores of senior Chinese government officials - many of them implicated in human rights abuses. To deny comparable access to a peaceful critic of Chinese autocracy and repression, and do so on the basis of flawed Chinese judicial procedures, is inexcusable.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • Ai Weiwei's passport returned but dissidents still suffering in China

    Despite living under near-constant surveillance since his release, Ai has continued to produce artworks, although they have been less overtly politically charged in recent years. Last month, the artist also opened his first solo exhibition on Chinese soil, a move interpreted by many as a sign that Chinese authorities were softening their stance towards the artist.

  • Return of Ai Weiwei's Passport Leaves Questions About His Future in China

    "Holding Ai Weiwei's passport was a way for the Chinese government to exert leverage over one of the country's most potent independent voices," said PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, who met with the artist at his Beijing home in January 2015. "The key now is that, once he travels overseas, Ai Weiwei be allowed back home into China and be left alone to pursue his art and express his views."

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