Are LEGOs the new tool of political activists?

Chinese activist Ai Weiwei is hailing a change in LEGO's policy around bulk orders as a victory for freedom of expression.

Eric Risberg/AP
People look at some of the 175 portraits made from LEGO pieces in the installation Trace during a preview of the art exhibit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, Sept. 24. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said Wednesday, that a change in policy by LEGO to allow bulk orders of its toy bricks for projects with a political purpose is a victory for freedom of expression.

Chinese artist activist Ai Weiwei is celebrating a victory over an unlikely foe: the maker of one of the most popular toys in the world, Lego bricks.

Mr. Ai had accused the Danish company earlier this year of censorship after LEGO refused to fulfill the artist's bulk order for a politically themed project in October.

Until Tuesday, the company asked bulk buyers of the bricks a series of questions to determine the purpose of his or her project before fulfilling the order. As the purpose of the LEGO Group is to inspire children through creative play, not to actively support or endorse specific agendas of individuals or organizations,” LEGO wrote in a press release. 

Ai needed the mass quantity of bricks for a gallery installation in Melbourne, Australia, so he took to the streets and social media asking supporters to donate their own LEGO bricks at collection centers, The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford reports. The communist Chinese government condemned the artist’s installation and attributed LEGO's refusal to supply Ai with the blocks with an unwillingness to potentially alienate the Chinese market by tacitly supporting his "capriciousness."

LEGO did not specifically cite the controversy with Ai as the reason for their change in policy, though Ai’s denunciations of LEGO on social media prompted supportive likes and comments from hundreds and thousands of followers. 

LEGO spokesman Roar Rude Trangbaek told the Associated Press that the new policy was not a direct response to Ai, but rather to quell questions of the company’s support for human rights and freedom of expression. 

“We hope the new guidelines will make it clear what we stand for,” Mr. Trangbaek told the Associated Press. He adds that freedom of expression is at the heart of LEGO's purpose. 

“As of January 1, the Lego group no longer asks for the thematic purpose when selling large quantities of LEGO bricks for projects,” the company says in a press release. Instead of answering questions regarding the thematic purpose of their purchase, buyers will now be required to make it publicly clear LEGO does not support the project, regardless of cause. 

Ai said Lego’s change of policy is a victory for freedom of expression. 

“Lego is a language which everybody can appreciate and should be able to use it according to their will, and that’s what all freedom of expression is about,” the artist told the Associated press by phone from Germany. 

“I think Lego made a good move,” Ai told the BBC. “I think this would be a small victory for freedom of speech.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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