LONDON (Reuters) - Dissident Chinese artist and free speech advocate Ai Weiwei has called on Britain’s government to do more to help refugees streaming across European borders, while praising Germany for its “very civilized” response to the crisis.
Ai, often described as China’s most high-profile artist, was speaking at a news conference on Friday to mark the opening of his new exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Art. It is the first he has been able to open in person since Chinese authorities returned his passport in July, having confiscated it four years earlier.
Ai, who divides his time between Berlin and Beijing, said: “I really feel very proud that Germany has acted very civilized.. .to receive those much less fortunate and desperate people.”
But he added: “I believe British people also have very strong compassion and I think the government should take a better position on that.”
Prime Minister David Cameron agreed last week to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, still a fraction of the 800,000 people Germany is expecting to host this year, after pressure mounted for Britain to bear a greater load.
Ai’s trip to Britain faced an obstacle earlier this year. In July he said he had been denied a six-month visa in favor of one with a shorter duration because he had not declared a criminal conviction.
Home Secretary Theresa May intervened to reverse the decision and granted a full six-month visa to Ai, who has never been charged or convicted of a crime but was imprisoned and fined in 2011 for alleged tax evasion.
He maintains the case was trumped up in retaliation for his criticism of the government.
Critics accused the British government of trying to avoid a situation in which Ai’s stay would overlap with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, due to visit in October, in order to placate the Chinese government.
Ai said he could not comment whether the decision to refuse him a visa was a deliberate act, but added that he believed the British government was generally cautious about doing anything that would upset Beijing.
The exhibition “Ai Weiwei” runs from Sept. 19 to Dec. 13 at the Royal Academy in London.
Reporting by Angus Berwick; Editing by Mark Trevelyan