Lego’s vice-chairman has called his company’s refusal to sell its bricks to Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei an “internal mistake”.
Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the grandson of the founder, told the Wall Street Journal that the company’s decision last year to decline a bulk order made on behalf of the artist, on the grounds that supporting his Melbourne exhibition would contravene “corporate policy”, was made by a very low-level employee.
“It was an internal mistake,” Kristiansen said, adding that Lego’s board was not involved, and that the decision had been made by an employee from the consumer service department who misinterpreted the company policy of political neutrality.
After Lego’s initial refusal, Ai retaliated by reposting the company’s letter on Instagram with a photo of a toilet bowl clogged with the toy bricks. He wrote that the Danish company’s refusal to sell its product was “an act of censorship and discrimination”.
He then received millions of donated Lego pieces from supporters around the world.
In an interview with The Guardian he compared big companies like Lego to his traditional sparring partner, the Chinese Communist party. They had the “same kind of bureaucracy, same kind of ignorance” and found it difficult to “change their line”, even when mistakes have been made, he said.
“They have to stand by them because losing even one piece can collapse the whole structure,” Ai said.
Kristiansen denied the refusal was influenced by commercial considerations in China and said freedom of expression was important to the company.
His son and successor, Thomas Kirk Kristiansen, said maintaining political neutrality remained a core value of the company, but admitted that refusing the artist’s request could also be interpreted as taking a political position.
An error had been made, he agreed: “It is a typical example of what can go wrong in a big company.”
In January Lego dropped its restrictions on bulk orders, saying it would stop asking people why they wanted its bricks. Customers wanting to build public displays out of Lego bricks would now only have to make clear that the company does not endorse the project.
Ai told the Wall Street Journal he welcomed Lego’s about-face, but added: “They recognised it a bit too late.”