24 Oct 2016, 25 mins ago

Ai Weiwei is a man whose artwork is world famous, who has filled the Tate’s turbine hall and is the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy. His achievements in architecture include assisting with the design of an Olympic Stadium. On top of this he has become one of the most famous critics of the Chinese government. He is the sort of person that you would imagine the UK would welcome as a visitor. UK immigration officials in Beijing thought otherwise and refused him a six-month visit visa.

Ai Weiwei was denied a six month visa not because of the discovery of a dark secret, nor even a poor UK immigration history but because an official at the British Embassy in Beijing disagreed with his interpretation of a question in a standard tick-box form. Ai Weiwei had stated that he had not had a criminal conviction, UK Visas and Immigration stated that ‘it is a matter of public record that you have previously received a criminal conviction in China, and you have not declared this’.

It is not clear whether the ‘public record’ was a document made available by the Chinese government, or media that the officer had read. The letter from UK Visas and Immigration does not state what advice on Chinese law the British Embassy took but two prominent lawyers working in the Chinese jurisdiction, Liu Xiaoyuan and Joshua Rosenzweig stated in a Guardian article that Ai Weiwei has no criminal convictions. Ai Weiwei was not given the opportunity to respond to the accusation that he had deceived the authorities and the Embassy apparently closed their minds to further representations. It took the intervention of the Secretary of State for the Home Department herself, to get the decision overturned.

The case exposes a wider problem with the UK immigration system. Nationals of every country must fill out the same form that pays no heed to cultural, linguistic, political and, crucially, legal differences between states. Applicants can understandably get confused trying to fit their circumstances within British terminology and definitions. If their interpretation differs from the interpretation of the immigration officer, however incorrect that may be, then the consequences can be devastating leading to refusals or even 10 year bans from the UK. Those whose profile does not push them on to Theresa May’s desk face expensive court or tribunal proceedings to try to remedy the situation.

The current refusal regime for entry clearance visas to the UK can lead to students, visitors and ordinary businessmen being denied entry to the UK for up to 10 years. There is concern that it is not being used in the manner that was intended by those who created the Rules but instead as a way to manipulate the statistics to help meet net migration targets. The statistics themselves can be seen as a way of trying to demonstrate an effective immigration policy whilst distracting the public from the problems in dealing with those in the UK illegally.