On a recent trip to China to promote dialogue between the Danish and Chinese governments and to lay the groundwork for a program of cultural exchange, Danish culture minister Uffe Elbaek met several major Chinese artists, but left out one notable exception: Ai Weiwei. Now the minister is coming under fire in Denmark for his omission, and has even been summoned before the Danish parliament to explain his decision not to see the dissident artist.
Elbaek explained to his questioners that he did not wish to offend his hosts. "You can say what you will," he told Danish newspaper Information, "but if you want a true dialogue, you must remain respectful of the people you are visiting." The minister also said that meeting with Ai Weiwei was never discussed by the Danish delegation. But several Danish political parties see the omission differently, and have loudly criticized Elbaek in no uncertain terms.
"This shows that Denmark prioritizes its commercial interests over democracy and human rights," fumed Stine Brix, cultural spokesperson for the leftist Enhedslisten party. A spokesperson for the Venstre party described the decision as "sad." On the political right, the Dansk Folkeparti asked, "why do we need a culture minister if he doesn't fight for freedom of speech?" Elbaek, who has a background in the non-profit world, is a member of the Danish Social Liberal party.
During his trip, Elbaek met performers at the National Center for Performing Arts and the Beijing Dance Theater, as well as musicians, academics, and bloggers. He discussed the Danish position on human rights during his meeting with the Chinese culture minister. "There was no fear of talking about sensitive topics," he told the newspaper Politiken. However, Elbaek maintains that the most important goal is to introduce Danish values to China through cultural exchange in a non-controversial way. He stated that he was confident of having heard voices that were "extremely critical" of the government and that he received an informed impression of Chinese society. Although Chinese president Hu Jintao recently warned of the danger westernization poses to Chinese culture, the Chinese government's tone was much gentler during his visit, noted Elbaek.
When Ai was arrested and detained for three months in difficult conditions, many countries — including France, Britain, Germany, and the U.S. — publicly denounced the Chinese government’s actions. Ai is currently appealing the charges of tax evasion and several million dollars in fines levied against his FAKE studio by the government. Markus Löning, German commissioner for human rights, made a symbolic donation of €100 to help pay Ai's fines, and the artist's supporters have contributed over 8.7 million yuan ($1.4 million).
Diplomatic visits paid to Ai remain controversial. Last year, the Austrian minister of foreign affairs Michael Spindelegger met with Ai Weiwei for 45 minutes during an official visit to China. The Austrian delegation had intended to keep the meeting secret, but Ai soon wrote about it on his blog. Spindelegger told AFP that the meeting should come as no surprise to the Chinese government, since he had brought up the subject of human rights with China’s minister of foreign affairs, Yang Jiechi.