Thursday, July 30, 2015
More Catholic than the Pope: UK government states Ai Weiwei has criminal conviction in China (he doesn't)
In an astounding cock-up of monumental proportions (because it could so easily have been avoided by spending a few minutes searching around the web), the UK government has accused Ai Weiwei of lying on his application for a UK visa. In a letter issued to Ai, the "Entry Clearance Manager" for Beijing stated:
It is noted that in answer to the question on the visa application form on whether you have ever had any of the following in the UK or a different country:
- A criminal conviction, at any time
- A driving offence, at any time, e.g. for speeding or no insurance
- I was arrested or charged, and I am currently on or awaiting trial
- A caution, warning, reprimand or fixed penalty notice
- A court judgment, e.g. for debt
- A fine for breaking UK immigration law (called a 'civil penalty')
You have stated: 'No, I have never had any of these'. It is a matter of public record that you have previously received a criminal conviction in China, and you have not declared this.
The ECM goes on to say that Ai will be granted a visa, but for less time than he had applied for. He or she urges Ai to respond truthfully next time, and notes that there is a place on the form to explain any answers.
Let me be clear about my own view: It is not unreasonable for the UK government to ask these questions, and applicants should respond truthfully. It would, of course, be unreasonable for the UK government to treat politically-motivated criminal convictions as equal to a genuine criminal history, but that's not what's at issue here. If Ai had had a criminal conviction, he should have said so.
The problem is that Ai does not have a criminal record in China. It is most emphatically not a matter of public record that he has previously received a criminal conviction in China. Anyone who claims this should be asked to produce this public record. (After all, it's public, right?) It's rather astounding that when the Chinese government, for all its harassment of Ai, did not see fit to charge and convict him on criminal grounds, the UK government should step up to the plate and do it for them.
Some people say, "Oh, but didn't he have some tax troubles a while back?" And others respond, "Yes, but those were politically motivated." All beside the point. To the second group, I say that he should respond truthfully and then explain, even if only as a practical matter, given that not telling the truth about things that really are in the public record is just not going to work. To the first group, I say that the ECM did not state an objection to Ai's failures to mention (a) his 2011 detention, allegedly for investigation of tax issues, or (b) the assessment and fine levied as an administrative (not criminal) matter on his company (not him). The ECM's objection was to Ai's failure to state that he has a criminal conviction. But he doesn't have one.
The ECM might have been on firmer ground had he or she said something along the lines of, "Really? No 'caution, warning, or reprimand'? Ever?" I suspect Ai has received a lot of communications that would qualify. Of course they are politically motivated, but that's what the place on the form for an explanation is for. But that's not what the ECM said.
It's understandable that everyone's memory is a little fuzzy about what happened back in 2011. What's harder to understand is how someone could give legal effect to that fuzzy memory without bothering to take just a few minutes to google around to verify the facts. Even more disappointing is that the UK authorities seem to be digging in their heels and refusing to admit their mistake. A Foreign Office spokesman, confronted with questions on this issue, said, “This is a visa issue, where applications are decided by UKVI [UK Visas and Immigration] based on relevant legislation.” Yeah. thanks. We know it's a visa issue. And we know that UKVI is supposed to decide on applications on the basis of relevant legislation. Does the relevant legislation really call for decisions to be made on the basis of made-up facts?
By the way, if you think you've heard this kind of bland, bureaucratic non-answer before, you have. Here's Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei on questions about Ai's 2011 detention: “China is a country under the rule of law, and relevant authorities will work according to law.” And here's Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on questions about Pu Zhiqiang's detention: "The judicial authorities of China handle the relevant case in accordance with the law."
Well done, Britain!
POSTSCRIPT: I'm not yet willing to dismiss the theory that this is just a low-level bureaucratic cock-up: somebody thinks he's fibbing because they misremember; they ask their superiors what to do, precisely because they don't want to deny him a visa, not because they do; the superiors, who assume that their subordinates have got their facts right, say, "Well, just give him a slap on the wrist and tell him not to do it again."
AUGUST 6th UPDATE: Kerry Brown, formerly of the Foreign Office, has kindly permitted me to publish his take on how this might have happened.