The Wall Street Journal
By JEREMY PAGE
APRIL 4, 2011, 8:34 P.M. ET
BEIJING—France and Germany have called for the release of Ai Weiwei, one of China's most famous artists, as his detention by Chinese authorities raises fears among his supporters that he could be charged with subversion or held indefinitely in extra-judicial custody as dozens of other activists have been over a six-week crackdown on dissent.
Mr. Ai, an outspoken critic of the government who has more than 70,000 followers on Twitter, has been out of contact since Chinese officials prevented him from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong on Sunday morning and then led him away, according to several of his friends and assistants.
Liu Xiaoyuan, Mr Ai's lawyer, late Monday criticized the Chinese media on Twitter for not reporting the artist's disappearance. "Ai Wei Wei has been taken away, and his studio has been searched," he wrote. "Whether Ai Weiwei is right or wrong, this is still really big news, a really hot topic. I never thought, never thought, that the domestic media would actually lose the power of speech, and act both deaf and dumb. Sad, really sad."
Once seen by the Chinese government as a cultural ambassador, Mr. Ai helped to design the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but then boycotted the opening ceremony. He has since become increasingly politically active, prompting frequent confrontations with Chinese authorities, who demolished his studio in Shanghai in January.
Police also took in Mr. Ai's wife, Lu Qing, and eight of his assistants for questioning Sunday after raiding his studio in Beijing and cutting off its power supply.
Ms. Lu and the studio staff were released by Monday afternoon, according to one of the assistants. But the 53-year-old artist remained out of contact and apparently in custody more than 24 hours after he was prevented from boarding the flight to Hong Kong, from where he planned to travel on to Taiwan to discuss plans for a possible exhibition, the assistant said.
Chinese authorities were thought to have tolerated the artist—who exhibited last year at London's Tate Modern gallery—because of his international profile and because his father, Ai Qing, was one of China's most famous modern poets. They now appear to be widening their crackdown to include China's highest-profile and best-connected government critics, in an indication of how concerned the Communist Party leadership is about the potential for the kind of unrest that has rocked the Arab world this year.
"If they are willing to go this far with someone like him, then all bets are off," said Joshua Rosenzweig, who heads the Hong Kong office of the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights organization.
Dozens of other political activists, lawyers, writers and critics have been detained in similar ways—confined to their homes or placed under surveillance—since anonymous calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China began circulating online in mid-February. At least three have been formally charged with state subversion, while several others have disappeared without their families being officially informed of their detention.
Mr. Ai keeps an informal tally of those detentions on Twitter, which is blocked in China, but is accessed by tech-savvy urbanites who know how to circumvent China's filters.
Mr. Rosenzweig said the number of people targeted in the current crackdown so far is far fewer than in the campaigns against Tibetan and Uighur activists in the last three years, or the one against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, which started in 1999.
But he called the current crackdown unusual—and troubling—because it targeted people for expressing political views rather than organizing political activity, and because it violated legal procedures that already allow huge scope to detain people for long periods.
"So many people are just disappearing," Mr. Rosenzweig said. "That suggests a willingness to sacrifice the rule of law and legal procedure in the name of stability."
Under Chinese law, police can hold someone for questioning for 12 hours without allowing him or her to contact anyone. If police formally detain someone for investigation, they are supposed to inform the person's family within 24 hours.
The fact that Mr. Ai hasn't contacted his lawyer or his wife suggests he is being held in a form of legal limbo that rights activists say is being increasingly used to coerce government critics into curtailing their political activities.
Chinese authorities haven't acknowledged detaining Mr. Ai.
A spokesman for Beijing police declined to comment, and an officer from the local police station in the district where Mr. Ai's studio is located hung up the telephone as soon as he heard Mr. Ai's name.
Meanwhile, all references to Mr. Ai appear to have been deleted from popular Chinese micro-blogging sites and news portals.
Mr. Ai, who lived in the U.S. between 1981 and 1993, had openly criticized the latest crackdown and announced last week that he was setting up a studio in Germany because of the problems he faced showing his work in China.
Write to Jeremy Page at email@example.com