Ai Weiwei Goes to London

Britain’s Home Office has rectified the decision to grant Ai Weiwei—China’s most famous artist and somewhat of a “cause célèbre” among victims, critics and dissidents in China—a 21-day visa in connection with the exhibition that will open soon at the Royal Academy of Arts. Home Secretary Theresa May has backtracked and granted him the six-month visa he had originally requested.

It is obvious that the offensively restrictive permit was aimed at preventing Mr. Weiwei from being in London at the same time that Chinese president Xi Jinping will be visiting Britain to discuss investments and trade with his hosts in October. The desperate attempt to clear the way for Mr. Jinping originally led the British government to prove once again the close connection between the absurdity of political bureaucracy and absurdist art that goes back to Dadaism and surrealism in postwar Europe, and which Weiwei’s own art exemplifies, in part reflecting the lack of communication in a world devoid of meaning.

London had alleged that the Chinese artist concealed a criminal conviction in his application. Actually, he concealed nothing because the Chinese government thugs who kidnapped him and placed him in arbitrary detention for three months in 2011, and who subsequently kept him under house arrest for four years, never charged him or sentenced him.

What Weiwei did get was a “tax fine” of $2.4 million that he was able to pay only with the help of some 30,000 sympathizers who sent him money—and to whom he gave in return beautifully designed and drawn IOUs that are probably worth much more than their face value.

This kind of attitude by Western liberal democracies towards dictatorial regimes always begs the question: Is it a case of servile obedience to the express wishes of the government they are trying to please, or simply an anticipatory gesture based on an interpretation of what those wishes might be?

Prime Minister David Cameron was not always as ready to please the Chinese authorities. In 2012, for instance, he caused a stir in Beijing by meeting with the Dalai Lama. A few months later, however, he seemed to atone for that act of diplomatic impudence by publicly rebuking the same Dalai Lama before taking a major trade delegation to China on an official visit.

He had further occasion to show remorse when, last year, he resisted every request to express sympathy for the valiant pro-democracy activists who were denouncing China’s move to change the voting system in Hong Kong. He has exercised no such restraint when invited by the Beijing authorities to embrace China’s efforts to gain influence over its neighbors and beyond—for instance by having Britain join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

By all means, let the Brits and the Chinese engage each other commercially and even politically. But why should the price of political and business engagement be to limit or bar other types of engagement, including the civic, moral and spiritual kind that Weiwei embodies by taking his conscience and his tongue wherever he is able to go? Only if one has a narrow-minded and perverse notion of what free exchanges mean can one find any sort of reason in restricting a visit from Weiwei in order to facilitate a visit from Jinpin.

Restricting Weiwei also amounts to restricting the Brits from deciding by themselves whether they want to see, talk to, listen to, or debate with this man who has a message he wants to share with them.

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