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Ai Weiwei’s Lego tiff highlights issues facing companies courting China

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei speaks during an interview near a playground outside a shopping mall in Beijing Tuesday, March 24, 2015. Amnesty International awarded its top honor Tuesday to Ai Weiwei, who has spent years shining light on his country's restrictive political atmosphere, and to U.S. folk singer Joan Baez for her civil rights activism. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has launched a global campaign to gather donated Lego after the Danish company that makes the bricks refused to send him supplies for an Australia project on free speech.

By Monday morning, a small pile of bricks had been dropped through the sunroof of a red BMW parked outside the Ai Weiwei Studio on a Beijing street, the spot the artist had designated as the first drop-off location for a new campaign to amass bricks for his art, after the Lego Group said it would not send him a bulk order.

In June, Mr. Ai's studio began planning an "Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei" exhibition with a free speech theme for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. But when museum staff wrote Lego to ask for bricks, they were rejected, with the latter saying that while individuals can use its products as they wish, it does not endorse projects with a political orientation.

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Mr. Ai took to Instagram to call that an "act of censorship and discrimination." He posted a picture of Lego bricks in a toilet, and his messages stirred global outrage, prompting a deluge of offers from people eager to donate bricks instead.

Early Monday, Mr. Ai returned to Instagram to say that, in response to Lego's "assault on creativity and freedom of expression," he would make a new project, one in defence of freedom of speech and political art. And, he said, he would organize drop-off points around the world to accumulate donated bricks for the effort.

The Lego spat was denounced by some critics as savvy publicity by Mr. Ai, an artist whose standing has been elevated in part by his willingness to court controversy. But it also placed fresh attention on the long-standing issues faced by companies courting China, as Lego has.

A deal to build a Legoland in Shanghai was signed last week during a visit to the Britain by Chinese President Xi Jinping. By the end of this year, Lego expects to begin production at its first Chinese factory in Jiaxing, about 100 kilometres from Shanghai. "Asia – including China – is a future core market for the Lego Group," company chief operation officer Bali Padda said when those plans were announced in 2013.

In recent years, Lego has seen "very strong double-digit growth in China," its chief financial officer, John Goodwin, said in September. Asia is expected to be the world's largest traditional toy market by next year, research firm Companies and Markets has forecast, thanks in part to China's growing appetite for toys.

But China has long presented the potential for trouble to foreign corporations, in part because its leadership is willing to use the buying power of its massive population as a political weapon. Sales of Norwegian salmon fell nearly 60 per cent after an angry Beijing imposed strict new inspections following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Sony Pictures deleted a scene from the movie Pixels that involved aliens blasting apart part of the Great Wall of China. "It will not benefit the China release at all. I would then, recommend not to do it," Li Chow, the company's chief China representative, wrote in an e-mail released by hackers, and reported by Reuters.

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Hollywood's eagerness to cash in on Chinese ticket-buyers has meant directors and producers have increasingly reworked heroes and villains to portray the country in a flattering light. Comedian Stephen Colbert recently pilloried the phenomenon with a bit he called "Pander Express."

The human rights community sees something more sinister at work, given the global reach of corporate efforts to mollify China.

"Censorship has been exported," said Maya Wang, China researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It's really important for governments and companies to think about the consequences of these actions."

A spokesman for Lego said it had no comment to a question about the company's concern for Chinese market share, offering instead a corporate statement that Lego doesn't censor creative use of its bricks. "We refrain – on a global level – from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda. This principle is not new," the statement said.

Jay Ong, an Australian who writes about Lego at Jay's Brick Blog, said Lego doesn't deserve criticism on censorship grounds, since it hasn't sought to bar Mr. Ai from using the bricks – just from supplying him directly. Lego is "fully within their rights to be mindful of protecting how their brand and products are associated. This is also why Lego will never produce sets with war, religious or political themes," said Mr. Ong, who lives in Melbourne and intends to attend Mr. Ai's exhibition.

The Lego Group has itself promoted ideas of creative expression, with some seeing subversive undertones in The Lego Movie that the company backed. Film critic Ben Walters called the 2014 release, whose protagonist becomes an accidental resistance fighter, "Hollywood's answer to the Occupy movement." Writing for The Guardian, he pointed to its "satirical digs at surveillance culture, built-in obsolescence and police brutality, as well as inane positive thinking."

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The movie was not shown in Chinese theatres. A followup movie, Lego Ninjago, is said to incorporate Chinese and Japanese elements.

As for Mr. Ai, the artist himself spent Monday retweeting some of the social media attention he received.

"I love it when artists kick corporations behinds," wrote Fazeelat Aslam, a New York-based filmmaker. Another appealed for brick donations to be brought to the National Art School in Sydney.

On Chinese social media, meanwhile, some cheered the Lego decision.

"It looks as if the rise of China is making life more miserable for those who are anti-China!" wrote one person. Another saw Lego as "primarily worried about sales in China. Everyone knows we are mafia!"

The Global Times, the Communist-run Chinese newspaper, published a column that suggested Western countries will find it increasingly difficult to support people whose China provocations might jeopardize broader business interests. "Dissidents need to carefully observe the subtle changes between China and the west, and try not to overdo things that too often 'add troubles' to Western society," said the column.

– With a report from Yu Mei

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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