During the Cold War, Soviet power took the form of a big, ugly wall in Berlin. Over the weekend, China’s subtler approach to global influence revealed itself in a dustup over little plastic bricks.
Ai Weiwei, a Beijing artist who’s clashed with the government, has used Legos to create portraits of political prisoners from China and around the world. In preparation for an upcoming exhibit of his work, an Australian museum recently tried to place a bulk order with the Danish company that makes the famous bricks. On Instagram late last week, Ai revealed that the Lego Group had declined the order. He speculated that the announcement last week of a planned Legoland amusement park in Shanghai had factored into the decision.
Not so, insists Lego, which says it consistently avoids projects with a political agenda. Still, the company is trying to scale up its business in the world’s most populous country. Meanwhile, China’s current leaders have cracked down on political expression and used their growing economic and diplomatic muscle to muzzle critics even overseas.
The deeper danger isn’t that a toymaker will help Beijing enforce its political taboos. It’s that leading tech companies will.
The New York Times reported earlier this month that Apple’s iPhone news app simply stops working if the device is used in China. American travelers who download stories to their own phones can’t read them upon arrival there. In other words, to preserve its place in a lucrative market, Apple is configuring products in ways that deny information not just to regular Chinese citizens but to globe-trotting business elites.
Facebook, which is blocked in China, also appears eager to come to some kind of accommodation. When China’s top Internet regulator visited Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley late last year, Mark Zuckerberg conspicuously had a copy of “The Governance of China,” by President Xi Jinping, on his table. In an ickily transparent suck-up, Zuckerberg said he’d bought the book for employees to educate them about “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
It isn’t just corporations that are struggling with how much to play along. In Britain, which has presented itself as China’s closest partner in the West, Human Rights Watch criticized police for arresting demonstrators during Xi’s visit last week.
Ai Weiwei, at least, won a short-term victory. After his Instagram post went viral, people around the world offered to send along their own Legos. But for Western companies – and governments – the dilemma keeps getting trickier: They can’t just impose democratic values on an increasingly assertive China. But in indulging Beijing’s sensitivities, how far is too far?