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British government does about-face after outcry, issues visa to Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei takes a selfie with fans at the June opening of an exhibition of his work in Beijing. The British government has reversed an earlier decision not to give Ai a full six-month visa.

Ai Weiwei takes a selfie with fans at the June opening of an exhibition of his work in Beijing. The British government has reversed an earlier decision not to give Ai a full six-month visa.

(Rolex Dela Pena / EPA)

Admitting that someone had blundered, the British government has reversed its decision earlier this week to deny Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei a six-month work visa and issued an apology to the artist-activist who has become a symbol for freedom of thought in the face of authoritarian control.

The British Home Office, which is in charge of visas, immigration and national security, announced Friday that it had overruled a decision by the British embassy in Beijing that would have limited Ai to a 20-day visit to oversee the Sept. 19 opening of his solo retrospective show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The BBC and other European media outlets reported that the Home Office issued a statement saying that Ai would get the full six-month visa he’d requested, after a review of his case by Home Secretary Theresa May.

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The statement said that May had not been consulted before the earlier refusal and that “we have written to Mr. Ai apologizing for the inconvenience caused.”

The 20-day visa would have ushered Ai out of Britain before a scheduled October state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Ai had gone public Thursday with a rejection letter from the British embassy in Beijing that was dated Wednesday. It said he did not qualify for the six-month work visa because he had “made false representations” on his application by omitting a criminal conviction.

Ai noted on social media that he in fact had never been convicted, only detained in the 2011 arrest that also led to Chinese authorities confiscating his passport.

The Chinese government reinstated Ai’s passport last week and on Thursday he arrived in Munich, Germany, where his 6-year-old son and partner live. Agence France-Presse reported that Germany has issued Ai a visa that will allow him to come and go as he wishes for four years.

The initial visa denial by the British embassy in Beijing had spurred an outcry from human rights advocates and in the British press, which raised speculation that the British government was kowtowing to Chinese government sensitivities over Ai being in the country during Xi’s coming state visit.

“If the decision was made to find favour with the Chinese, it will have important ramifications,” the Independent newspaper had editorialized on Friday, before the Home Office reversed course and granted the six-month visa.

The editorial, headlined “Ai Wei Wei’s visa difficulties hold Britain up to ridicule,” said the visa’s initial denial was “a wasted opportunity for the British Government to offer its support to such an important political and cultural figure…. Ai … 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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