Minister Under Fire For Refusing Ai Weiwei

Danish culture minister fails to meet Ai Weiwei during trip to China for fear of alienating Chinese government

Danish culture minister Uffe Elbaek is under fire in his own country for neglecting to meet dissident artist Ai Weiwei during his recent trip to China – even though he met with several artists! The purpose of the trip was to promote dialogue between the Danish and Chinese governments and to begin establishing a program of cultural exchange. But, while the trip may have helped bolster foreign relations, it has created discord at home, with Elbaek being summoned before the Danish parliament to justify his actions. 

Elbaek defends himself on the grounds that an interview with the dissident Ai Weiwei would have jeopardised efforts to establish a relationship between the two nations:  ‘You can say what you will, but if you want a true dialogue, you must remain respectful of the people you are visiting.’ But opposition Danish political parties on both the Left and the Right have condemned this real politik as immoral. The leftist Enhedslisten party, for example, believes that the incident ‘shows that Denmark prioritizes its commercial interests over democracy and human rights’, while on the Right, the Dansk Folkeparti posed the question; ‘why do we need a culture minister if he doesn’t fight for freedom of speech?’

But Elbaek has struck back saying that his decision to snub Ai Weiwei did not denote a general floppiness on the part of the Danish delegation. For example, he allegedly confronted the Chinese culture minister with questions about their record on human rights, with their reportedly being ‘no fear of talking about sensitive topics’. Furthermore, during the visit he met with artists, musicians, academics, and bloggers many of whom were ‘extremely critical’ of the government. But Elbaek believes that going in too hard at this moment could damage the long-term efforts to introduce Danish values to China through cultural exchange.

Many countries, however, have voiced support for Ai Weiwei in the past. When he was arrested and detained for 3 months, for instance, France, Britain, Germany, and the U.S. all publicly denounced the Chinese government’s actions. Nevertheless, diplomatic visits paid to Ai Weiwei are a highly complex issue, with international leaders uncertain about how to handle the situation. Last year, for example, the Austrian foreign minister met with Ai Weiwei but they had hoped to keep it secret – a effort that thwarted by Ai Weiwei’s publication of the details on his blog.

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