Beijing: China on Thursday warned the international community it had “no right to interfere” in the case of outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, who has been detained for investigation of unspecified economic crimes.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei confirmed a state media report that Ai, an avant-garde artist taken into custody in Beijing on Sunday as the government pursues a heavy crackdown on dissent, was the subject of a police probe.
Western governments and rights groups have lined up in support of Ai, who was detained while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong and has not been heard from since, but Beijing signalled it would not tolerate criticism from abroad.
“Ai Weiwei is under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes,” Hong told reporters during a briefing, refusing to comment on the nature of the alleged crimes.
“It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression,” he said, in the first official Chinese comment on Ai’s case.
“Other countries have no right to interfere,” added Hong, who later refused to answer further queries on Ai and abruptly cut the briefing short when the questions continued.
Ai, who was born in 1957, is merely the latest of dozens of activists and government critics rounded up following online calls for demonstrations in China to emulate the “Jasmine” protests that have rocked the Arab world.
The United States, France, Germany and Britain have joined Amnesty International and other groups in calling for Ai’s release, with US ambassador Jon Huntsman defending the artist in a Shanghai speech on Wednesday.
In unusually blunt public comments, Huntsman - who will soon leave his post - saluted Ai, jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and others who “challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times”.
China typically uses charges such as subversion to put away government critics, as it did in Liu’s case, but has also previously levelled accusations of various economic crimes such as tax-related offences to silence others.
Ai’s wife Lu Qing told AFP that she still had no official confirmation from police about the investigation or news of her husband’s whereabouts.
“I am waiting for news,” an emotional Lu said in a halting voice. “I so far have no information from the authorities about the fate of Ai Weiwei.”
Beijing police refused comment when contacted Thursday by AFP.
“Right now it is hard to say what is going on,” Ai’s attorney Liu Xiaoyuan told AFP.
Police on Sunday also raided the Beijing studio run by Ai - a burly man with a distinctive wispy beard whose work is currently on display in London’s Tate Modern gallery.
The son of a poet revered by China’s early Communist leaders, Ai helped design the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Games, but has since become a thorn in the government’s side.
He probed the collapse of schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, looked into a Shanghai high-rise fire last November that killed dozens, and says police beat him when he tried to testify on behalf of another activist in 2009.
In January, his newly built Shanghai studio was demolished in apparent retaliation for his criticism of city policies, and a month later said his first large solo exhibit in mainland China was cancelled over political sensitivities.
The Global Times - a state newspaper with links to the ruling party - has hit out at Ai in the past two days, calling him a “maverick” who threatened to cross a “red line” of Chinese law.
On Thursday, it said reining in provocative people like Ai was more important that allowing him to speak freely.
The government has been extremely skittish following the mysterious online calls for people to gather each Sunday around China in peaceful demonstrations.
No protests have been reported, but scores of dissidents, activists and rights lawyers have been rounded up in recent weeks.
Ai’s mother, Gao Ying, said she believed her son was the victim of trumped-up accusations.
“I don’t think this is the reason they have taken him away... Ai Weiwei is not a criminal, he is an artist who is in search of justice,” Gao told AFP.
“What has happened is not right. He must have his voice, his work, it is not right that they take him away like this and accuse him of being a criminal.”