Child’s Play: Why LEGO Isn’t Keen on Being a Building Block in Chinese Politics

It started with a greyscale Instagram post of a toilet filled with toy building blocks and has turned into an embarrassing campaign for free speech against the world’s largest toy manufacturer. As unusual as this sounds, that’s the basis of the Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei’s turning on the Danish children’s company, Lego.

Image courtesy of Sonny Abesamis, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Sonny Abesamis, © 2011, some rights reserved.

With the news that Ai had been declined a bulk order of Lego bricks to be used in his upcoming exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, the artist and critic turned to social media. As noted on his Instagram feed, Lego uphold a stringent ‘no politics’ policy the world over, and refused his order on the basis that it would not be clear to the public that ‘the LEGO Group has not sponsored or endorsed the art work/project.’[1] Ai had planned to use the bricks to create a mural portrait of Australian advocates of human rights, a theme ever-present in his work as a Chinese campaigner on censorship and free speech.[2] An undeniably courageous and important artist, Ai has turned his artistic lens— and legions of fans globally— against the Lego Group.

But, should children’s toys ever be embroiled in international politics? A company which prides itself on remaining apolitical, The Lego Group believes not, instead looking to inspire the builders of tomorrow irrelevant of geography or political view.[3] As the largest toy manufacturer in the world, they hold an important place in millions of childhoods, and are courageous in their stand against politics— whether international or domestic— leeching into the world of child’s play.

However, the Lego Group has inadvertently found itself at the heart of a debate between an evolving Chinese state and one of its most internationally-celebrated dissident artists. The theme of the upcoming piece is undeniably important, and Ai Wei Wei has an internationally-renowned reputation as a bastion of freedom in China. So, despite the manufacturer rhetoric, could there be an economic-political motive to Lego’s order denial?

The market for Chinese toys is at an expansive crossroads, with the renunciation of the One Child Policy leaving the gates open for a boom in toy sales. Just look at the share price of child-orientated Chinese companies on the official news of the cap removal: stroller manufacturers up 6.3 per cent and a formula milk company conglomerate increasing 7.7 per cent, among others.[4] The hope for real growth in this market is clear, and the Lego corporation would surely not want to jeopardise their world-leading position. China’s lax regulation on copycat products means that ‘off brand’ Lego-variants are common, getting as close to the wire as the suspiciously-named ‘Ligao’ building blocks.[5] For this reason, Lego is— to an extent— reliant on the power of the Chinese state to legitimise their position. The government allows the distribution of over 100,000 free Lego sets to Chinese state schoolchildren as part of the Lego Foundation, raising brand awareness and evoking the power of play in the next generation of Chinese citizens. However, does this mean that the Danish company are hand in hand with the Chinese state?

The issue comes from an interpretive fog between the company and the product— on the one hand, Lego blocks exude the power of creative learning and utilitarian design, whereas on the other the organisation has to work within the limits of a globalised political economy. They walk a difficult line between ethos and economy, balancing a long-held belief with the necessity to succeed in the future.

One thing’s for sure, this policy is not a one-off evocation based on a current economic-political milieu. Lego are very clear on their apolitical policy, and have stepped into the breach of politics like this many times before. During the Scottish independence referendum, they asked the UK Government to refrain from depicting pro-union arguments with Lego cartoons. In 1996 they attempted to stop Polish artist Zbigniew Libera from constructing a faux Lego kit depicting a concentration camp and recently rejected proposals for a customised Lego set of the USA’s female Supreme Court Justices. No matter how great a plastic Ruth Bader Ginsburg sounds, or how much media flack the Lego Group receive for taking these steps, they have stood their ground in recognition of what they believe to be an underlining principle of the utilitarian brick: a freedom from political message and association.[6] It isn’t that they disagree with any of the potent arguments being put forward, but simply believe that child’s play is not a space for political associations.

What Lego is sharing with children the world over is an interest in play through imagination, not the viewpoint of one artist. It’s an undeniably difficult line to walk: the company has to look at how best to grow their business in an increasingly complex economic environment, but without compromising the ethos of their product. Although this was a poorly handled public relations moment for Lego, Ai Wei Wei is still going to create this piece of art— only now with bricks donated by a global band of willing supporters. The work’s message, an incredibly important one about the necessity of free speech and advocacy, is still going to get across through the artist’s powerful vision, so why embroil a toy company? It would have been easier for Lego to give in— as it would on many other occasions— but the plastic builders have held out. If there’s one place where politics, both domestic and international, shouldn’t stray, it’s children’s toys. The Lego Group knows this.