The Null Device

No Lego for you, Mr. Ai!

The Lego company has placed a worldwide ban on sales of bricks to the artist Ai Weiwei, on the grounds that they “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works”. Ai was planning to use the Lego bricks for an exhibit at his upcoming exhibition in Melbourne. The nature of the exhibit is not known, other than it was to concern free speech, though it could have upset officials in the Chinese government, and thus threatened Lego's profits in that billion-strong market. And so, a company from ultra-liberal Denmark, and one which has sponsored public art projects with no political censorship there, helps China export the Confucian-Communist authoritarian ideal of “harmony” to the democratic world, all guided by the profit motive.

After the news went out, Ai has received numerous offers of Lego bricks from private individuals, and has confirmed that he will proceed with voluntary donations of bricks.

So one could conclude that Lego have lost this one; an attempt to discreetly neutralise a liability having instead Streisanded them spectacularly, revealing the bastion of Scandinavian liberalism to be willing to kowtow to dictatorships in the pursuit of profits? Yes and no (though, in reality, mostly no). While Ai gets to complete his work, and a few leftists, liberals and civil libertarians (as opposed to the more common uncivil variety, to whom the freedom to pursue profit is supreme) may vow to not buy another Lego brick as long as they live, realistically that stands to hurt their bottom line about as much as the 30-year baby-milk boycott against Nestlé; i.e., not at all; and even if it did, the prospect of increased profits from the vast Chinese market (which would otherwise have gone to numerous knock-off brands) Lego can expect as a reward for its loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party will more than compensate for any loss of prestige among the small number of people in the west still inclined to vote with their wallets.

The moral of this story is that the Reaganite ideal of trade and free markets dissolving dictatorships and spreading liberalism and democracy in their wake is a non-starter when the most powerful players in the market are profoundly anti-liberal dictatorships (of which China is one; another one is Saudi Arabia, recently elected to chair the UN Human Rights Council (with, it turns out, the discreet lobbying efforts of countries like the UK behind it), and about to crucify a young man for blasphemy; Saudi Arabia's major initiative in human rights to now has been to push for the global criminalisation of the insulting of religion).

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