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Forbidden artist Ai Weiwei makes massive map of China out of baby formula

Philippe Lopez / AFP - Getty Images

A map of China made from more than 1,800 cans of baby formula created by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei highlights the controversy over raging demand for milk powder from Hong Kong in mainland China. Hong Kong has passed a draconian law to limit supplies.

BEIJING – His art may be forbidden in China and his name blocked as a search topic online, but Chinese artist and social activist Ai Weiwei still knows how to grab headlines.

His latest art project on display in Hong Kong is titled “Baby Formula 2013” and is an 860-square-foot map of China assembled from more than 1,800 cans of formula.

The exhibit strikes at the heart of a number of key social issues affecting China right now: from ever-present domestic food scandals to growing tension between Hong Kong and the mainland.

A former British colony, Hong Kong became a self-administered region of China in 1997 and operates under different laws. It remains free from state censorship and has become a mecca for shoppers from the mainland who believe they are buying the real – not fake or copied – items. 

Ed Flanagan / NBC News

A sign at the Air China check-in counter in Hong Kong says, "Departing with excessive powdered formula COMMITS AN OFFENCE ... each may take 2 cans of powdered formula with a total net weight up to 1.8 kg out of Hong Kong."

But on March 1 Hong Kong’s government ordered a two-can limit be enforced on people attempting to bring baby formula out of the special administrative region.

The draconian law is meant to prevent anxious parents from the mainland from buying up its formula in the wake of the 2008 melamine milk scandals that killed six children and left 300,000 others ill.

“I understand the intention of the milk power law, but it’s not a law that should be accepted in a free-enterprise city like Hong Kong,” Ai said by phone Tuesday. “You don’t limit the sale of things like Coca-Cola or formula. This is something Hong Kong should work with the mainland government to solve.”

Ai, who used eight brands of popular foreign baby formula to construct the map, said it took a number of buyers some time to purchase all the cans needed for the project. 

“We went out and researched and bought the brands of formula that were popular amongst Chinese parents,” he said, noting products from Switzerland, Australia, Germany and the U.S. were particularly hot sellers.

In China -- where Ai’s name continues to be a blocked term in Chinese social media due to his run-ins with the government -- reaction to his newest exhibition ranged from frustration with the steady flow of food scandals to amusement over the Hong Kong law.

“It is like a slap across the face of China’s milk powder industry,” wrote one angered user on China’s twitter-like service, Weibo, “Do they have the nerve to keep living?”

“I’m going to steal some cans of formula when I go to see the exhibition!” another user chimed in.

Despite his concerns over the Hong Kong law, Ai’s focus seems to be more on the ongoing concerns over food safety in China.

“That Chinese people have to go across the border just to get a fresh supply of baby formula and clean food, that’s shocking to me,” Ai said. “Food safety is a huge issue now due to the neglect of the government."

“I just wanted to speed up the change and development," he added.

Philippe Lopez / AFP - Getty Images

A woman walks along Ai Weiwei's baby formula map of China. "Food safety is a huge issue now due to the neglect of the government," Ai said.

The insatiable demand for foreign baby formula and other products in China has in recent years led to fears of shortages in Hong Kong, where resentment toward visiting mainland shoppers – sometimes derogatorily referred to as “locusts” – has grown.

Concern that mainland shoppers could buy up the entire supply of formula prompted the changes to the law that seemed out of character with Hong Kong’s reputation as the world’s freest economy.

Hong Kong is not the first part of the world to change the rules on baby formula purchases. Retailers in Australia and Britain have also imposed can limits as a result of surging Chinese demand.

But Hong Kong’s law angered mainland parents who found themselves suddenly facing fines upward of $64,000 and two-year prison sentences if found guilty of trying to sneak more formula out for their children.

It also inflamed tensions in mainland China, where the formula limit was seen as a sign of Hong Kong’s ingratitude for the inherent economic benefits enjoyed by its close proximity to the mainland.

NBC News’ Lorraine Liu and Huang Pei contributed to this report.

Sharron Lovell / Polaris

Ai Weiwei is an artist and social activist who has a history of courting controversy in China. Click to see photos of some of his most influential works.

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