Thursday, 30 July 2015

UK Visas & Immigration on Ai Wei Wei: Embarassing, stupid, and wrong

Back in 2010 I had the pleasure of catching Ai Wei Wei's sunflower-seed exhibit at the Tate Modern art museum with a Taiwanese friend who was visiting the UK. Whilst looking at millions of artificial porcelain seeds it not quite my thing the exhibition had a certain immensity to it, realising all the work that must have gone into making these seeds: many of them, but each one an individual. The parallel with the Chinese nation itself was obvious, and remarked on in reviews of the exhibit.

It is therefore with intense embarrassment and not a small measure of anger that I read of the UK Foreign Office's decision to limit Ai Weiwei's visa to the UK for the preposterous reason that he has a criminal records undeclared on his visa application form by a certain A. Cramer, entry clearance manager at the UK's Beijing embassy.

In his letter to Ai Weiwei explaining the decision (copied above), Cramer refers to it being a "matter of public record" that Ai had "previously received a criminal conviction in China". This is the precise opposite of the truth. It is in fact a matter of public record that Ai Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days without being charged with anything, far less convicted, and that this extra-judicial punishment was the only proceedings even vaguely resembling criminal proceedings against Ai that have been in the public eye.  A separate, almost certainly politically-motivated law-suit was brought against Ai for unpaid taxes, but being a civil matter, this is nothing to do with criminal charges.

Whilst some have said they believe this may be an excuse for getting Ai Weiwei out of the country whilst Xi Jinping is visiting, I dearly hope this is not the case. Having seen first hand the mindlessly bureaucratic attitude that some embassy officials can take, and the blockheaded obstinance with which they refuse to change their minds even when proved totally incorrect it might even be the case that this is a genuine mistake by the embassy officials - but I'm afraid this may be wishful thinking on my part.

Of course, given that the UK is home to all sorts of activists who might make Xi's visit an embarrassment, from Free Tibet activists to Fa Lun Gongers, even the theory that this might be a sop to Xi makes little sense. One is left with the impression that UK officials have decided to confirm validity on extra-judicial punishments meted out by the CCP for no real reason at all.

[UPDATE: The decision has thankfully been reversed, perhaps this decision really was the act of a lone bureaucrat?]


justrecently said...

A friendly way of interpreting this would be that the UK government puts business first. But I don't doubt for a moment that this was an intentional, clear-minded move to curry favor with the CCP.

I think there's a local footnote to that, too. If Western governments show that little respect to citizens' rights in China, there's no reason why they should, in the long run, respect citizens' rights at home.

Gilman Grundy said...

Well, they just reversed the decision, so either this was (as I hope) just the work of a lone idiot in the UK visa service, or there was some deeper politics involved:

justrecently said...

One shouldn't underestimate the capacity of people to misjudge a situation. But Ai Weiwei is a household name, and they certainly didn't leave the decision to an apprentice. This was just a test - no problem for Mrs. May and the Cabinet. Next week, it will be forgotten.

I seem to remember at least two unsuccessful tries by the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa in recent years. There's quite a civil society there, and there were outbursts of anger and shame - but hen big business is involved, there's no sense of shame that can't be overcome.

Either way, it's good that the decision has been reversed.