clock menu more-arrow no yes

This is baffling: the UK just denied a visa to Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei arrives in Munich. Apparently his imaginary "criminal conviction" didn't trouble the German authorities.
Ai Weiwei arrives in Munich. Apparently his imaginary "criminal conviction" didn't trouble the German authorities.
Joerg Koch/Getty Images

The UK has done something very odd: It denied a business visa to renowned Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Ai, on Wednesday, posted the letter from the UK foreign office denying the visa on his Instagram account. It informs him that his application for a six-month business visa has been denied because he lied on his visa application when he said he had not been charged or convicted of any crime. Instead, the letter says, he'll be granted a temporary visa for a few weeks in September:

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

This is really strange.

The letter says that Ai's application was denied because it is a "matter of public record" that the artist had received a criminal conviction in China, and that he had failed to disclose that on his visa form. But not only is that not a matter of public record, it doesn't appear to be true at all. Although the artist has been fined, imprisoned, and persecuted by Chinese authorities, all for his artistic and political activity, he has never actually been convicted of a crime.

"Under Chinese law Ai’s case ended in the police investigation stage and has not reached the court," Chinese human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan explained to the Guardian. "The case does not have a court sentence and hence by Chinese standard, Ai doesn’t have a criminal conviction."

Indeed, it doesn't appear that Ai has ever even been formally charged with a crime, much less convicted of one. In 2011, he was arrested and detained for 81 days. He was investigated and held on suspicion of a variety of different charges including tax evasion, but was never formally charged and was eventually released.

But more importantly, it is also a matter of "public record" that the investigation was an act of political persecution meant to pressure one of China's highest-profile dissidents into silence.

The UK immigration authorities clearly knew that, because the letter makes a big deal out of the decision to "exceptionally" grant entry clearance "outside the immigration rules" — whereas the normal response, as the letter snidely points out, is to reject the application entirely and ban the applicant from reapplying for a decade.

In other words, this isn't an official being an unreasonable stickler for the letter of the law. It's an official making up a supposed violation of the law, then bending over backward to offer an extralegal solution to that imagined problem.

Perhaps this was just a mistake. Maybe the official who processed the visa application erroneously thought that Ai had been convicted and never bothered to get the facts straight. But it would have been easy to ask for clarification, or more evidence, rather than simply rejecting the application. Surely such a high-profile visa request is an occasion for double-checking one's facts — or at least making a phone call?

Or perhaps something else is going on. One possible factor in all this is that Chinese president Xi Jinping is due to make a state visit to London in October. If the UK issued Ai a six-month business visa, that would have allowed him to stay in the country through Xi's visit. As the Financial Times reports, "Any protest or public stunt by the artist could have caused embarrassment to the British government, which has worked hard to improve relations with Beijing in recent years."

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.