BEIJING (AP) — Britain has denied Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei a six-month business visa to attend a London exhibition of his work, saying he failed to disclose that he has a criminal conviction — a claim that the artist and his attorney dispute.
Ai, who says a tax case against him in China was administrative and not criminal, was given a shorter, three-week visa instead.
"It is a matter of public record that you have previously received a criminal conviction in China, and you have not declared this," read a letter from the embassy that Ai disclosed on Thursday.
Home Secretary Theresa May is now looking at the case.
A post on Ai's Instagram account said the restriction meant he "may not be able to attend his exhibition installation and opening." The show at the Royal Academy of Arts previews on Sept. 15 and opens Sept. 19.
Ai, who often uses his work to draw attention to corruption and injustices in Chinese society, was detained for nearly three months in 2011 during a wider crackdown on dissent as the Arab Spring unfolded. On his release he was placed under a travel ban that was only fully lifted last week.
Soon after his release, tax authorities accused Ai's design company of tax evasion and ordered it to pay $2.4 million. The artist and his supporters called the penalty official retaliation against his activism. He has also been under police investigation for criminal charges but not indicted.
One of his lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan, said Thursday that that the tax case was administrative, not criminal, and that Ai had not been convicted of any crime: "Police investigation of suspected crimes doesn't constitute a criminal record."
Britain's Home Office said the visa it granted Ai — three weeks starting Sept. 9 — would cover "the full duration of the stay he requested." Those dates also mean Ai's visa will have run out by the time Chinese President Xi Jinping pays a state visit to Britain in October.
Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, saw a political motive in the visa spat. She said the British government was showing "extreme deference" to a Chinese government "notorious for persecuting people for their peacefully expressed political views."
Royal Academy director Tim Marlow told the BBC that Ai was "bemused and irate" at the "irritating bureaucratic mix-up."
He said he wouldn't be surprised if the artist decided, "'well, fine, I just step back and I don't come to Britain.'"
The artist flew to Munich on Thursday to visit his son, who lives in Germany.
Jill Lawless reported from London. AP writers Danica Kirka and Ashley Chan in London contributed to this report.