News / Asia

Artist's Detention Considered Warning to Pro-Democracy Dissidents

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (File)
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (File)
Peter Simpson

There is growing concern about the welfare of celebrated Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei after he was detained and barred from leaving the country early Sunday. Family and supporters say the outspoken government critic is the latest activist to be seized by security officials since online calls for pro-democracy protests began to circulate in China in February.

Ai was stopped and detained by security officials early Sunday as he tried to board a plane for Hong Kong.

Police with a search warrant raided his Beijing home and gallery. His wife, Lu Qing, told VOA she and eight staff were also detained for several hours then released.

Computers and other material were taken by police.

Lu says she has not heard from her husband and that police refuse to say where he is nor why he was banned from travelling.

She says she, like many others, is afraid of the authorities and asked that her voice not be broadcast.

Ai is the latest among scores of activists to be seized since online calls for pro-democracy protests similar to those in the Middle East circulated in China last month.

The 53-year-old artist, who helped design the iconic Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, has used his international fame to criticize the government's  human rights record and champion democracy.

Sam Zarifi, the Asia pacific director of Amnesty International, says Ai Weiwei's detention is designed to send a strong warning to other activist.

"By going after Ai Weiwei, the message is very clear," Zarifi said. "Even somebody that well known and that well connected, is not immune. If Ai Weiwei can be picked up like this there's really no hope for some of the grassroots activists that we have seen coming under significant pressure in the last few months."

Zarifi says pro-democracy protests in North Africa and the Middle East have made the Chinese government very nervous.

Ai has had previous run-ins with the authorities. He was beaten by police in 2009 for supporting young victims of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

Last year, he was banned from international travel ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize Award ceremony for jailed Chinese dissident Lui Xiaobo.

He was then told his journey was a risk to national security.

Ai's name was blacked out Monday from Chinese internet search engines.

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