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Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrives in Munich - and snaps a selfie

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrives in Munich - and snaps a selfie

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on July 30, 2015

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrived in Germany on Thursday night on his first overseas trip in nearly four years – and the first thing he did was take a selfie.

Ai landed in the southern city of Munich on a Lufthansa flight and stopped to take a snap as he left the customs area, with the arrivals board in the background.

His trip to Germany came after he was denied a six-month business visa to Britain after failing to declare his "previous criminal conviction" in China – a decision he said was a “denial of his right as an ordinary citizen”.

On his Instagram account, the bearded avant-garde artist today posted a letter from the British embassy in Beijing, dated July 29, informing him that he could only travel to the country for 20 days because he made “false representations” on his application.

“It is a matter of public record that you have previously received a criminal conviction in China, and you have not declared this,” the letter states. “Exceptionally, it has been decided to grant you entry clearance outside the Immigration Rules for your stated dates of travel.”

Ai this morning said on social media that he questioned authorities' decision about his legal track record - which though filled with run-ins with police and the tax department has never resulted in a court conviction. 

"In further conversations [with the British embassy in Beijing, they] referenced news about [my] secret detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011 and the tax case for Fake Design," he said. He maintained that he has never been charged or convicted of a crime.

Ai was expected to visit London for his major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which will present work from the time he returned to China in 1993 to present day. The exhibition will run from September 19 to December 13 – and his visa is valid from September 9-29.

Tim Marlow, artistic director at the academy of arts, said they were "concerned" about the visa restriction. "We hope for a speedy resolution to this situation and we continue to look forward to welcoming Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy for his first major institutional exhibition in the UK this September," he said in a statement.

Ai – an internationally recognised contemporary artist who has used his art and influence to blast China's human rights record – had just received his passport last Wednesday after it was confiscated for four years by Chinese authorities.

He had been under a travel ban since 2011 after being detained for three months over alleged tax evasion – a move that many supporters and rights groups viewed as an attempt to stifle his outspoken views against the Communist Party.

After being released without charge, Ai’s design firm, Fake Design, was required to pay a tax bill of US$2.4 million. He responded by suing the tax authorities and challenging the decision in court, but lost.

Ai and his legal team said the tax case was rife with violations of legal  procedure, and rights groups such as Britain’s Amnesty International suggested  it was politically driven and showed China’s “deep insecurity.”

The travel ban was partially lifted in 2012, allowing him to travel domestically, but authorities refused to release his passport on the grounds that he remained under investigation on suspicion of pornography and illegal exchange of foreign currency. He has not been indicted on either charge.

Ai posted a series of photos about the visa fracas on Instagram and Twitter. He attached a photo of a toilet along with his official response.

It drew hundreds of comments criticising Britain’s decision as a “disgrace” and embarrassment”.

“This decision is a denial of [my] rights as an ordinary citizen, and a stand to take the position of those who caused sufferings for human rights defenders,” he said.

However, a British Home Office through a spokesperson stood by its decision.

“All applications are considered on their individual merits and in line with the relevant legislation,” the spokesperson told the South China Morning Post. “Mr Ai has been granted a visa for the full duration of his requested dates of travel.”

In contrast, Ai said last week that Germany, where his six -year-old son lives, had  granted him a four year multiple-entry visa.

Britain’s governing Conservative party has sought to improve relations with  China after leader David Cameron angered Beijing by meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Since then London has made a number of moves which have bought it back into Beijing’s good graces, including joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure  Investment Bank, unlike the US or Japan.

With additional reporting by Associated Press

Correction: A quote from the Home Office was mistakenly attributed to the Beijing British embassy's head of media. Our apologies.

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