BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s detention of renowned artist Ai Weiwei has sparked an online petition urging his release as the nation’s liberal intellectuals expressed concern about how far a crackdown to stifle dissent could reach.
Chinese officials have not commented on the whereabouts of Ai, who was stopped on Sunday from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and taken away by border police. There was little doubt he has joined a lengthening list of dissidents and activists in detention or informal custody.
Ai has been out of contact; his mobile phone was off.
His wife, Lu Qing, told Reuters that police officers would not give her any information, and this detention appeared more serious than his recent run-ins with the government.
“This time it’s extremely serious,” she said.
“They searched his studio and took discs and hard drives and all kinds of stuff, but the police haven’t told us where he is or what they’re after. There’s no information about him.”
The disappearance of Ai, a burly, bearded 53-year-old avant-garde artist and designer who had a hand in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has drawn condemnation from Western governments.
The United States, Britain and Germany denounced China’s growing use of extra-judicial detentions against dissidents who the ruling Communist Party fears could spread calls for protests inspired by Middle Eastern uprisings.
On Tuesday, the U.S. embassy and European Union delegation in Beijing repeated those denunciations, in a sign that Ai’s case could develop into a diplomatic row.
Chinese activists were increasingly alarmed about Ai’s detention, and supporters in China and abroad promoted an online drive urging authorities to free him.
“Today, every one of us could become an Ai Weiwei,” Ai Xiaoming, an academic and documentary-maker in southern China, who is not related to Ai Weiwei, wrote in an essay about the petition that circulated on overseas Chinese Internet sites.
“What I meant was that Ai Weiwei is an artist, so he has more prominence than many others, but there are many other people facing the same situation,” she said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
The online petition to “free Ai Weiwei” was launched on a Twitter microblog site (http:/twitition.com/ao9m7), which China’s wall of Internet censorship stops most Chinese people from seeing.
By early Wednesday Beijing time, it had more than 2,000 signatories, many of them apparently Chinese people with the skills and technology to jump past the censorship barriers.
Many activists in China have followed the case by overcoming censorship or by word of mouth.
Art galleries in London and New York vowed to stage upcoming exhibitions of his work planned.
“We are extremely alarmed by the detention of Ai Weiwei and his colleagues and are greatly concerned for his safety. Ai Weiwei ... consistently displays great courage in placing himself at risk to affect social change through his art,” the Lisson Gallery, which represents the artist in London, said in a statement.
An Ai exhibition was due to open there on May 13.
In New York, the Mary Boone Gallery, which represents him, said it planned to go ahead with an exhibition due to open on September 10.
Ai is the most internationally prominent target of a spate of detentions since February. While dozens of activists have been released, dozens remain locked away, and at least three have been formally arrested on broad subversion charges often used to jail dissidents.
Wang Ling, the wife of Teng Biao, one of Beijing’s most prominent human rights lawyers, told Reuters that police officers told her Teng was “under investigation” but they declined to say what for or to let her visit him.
The crackdown goes beyond recent cycles of political tightening, said Chinese intellectuals. If Teng or other prominent lawyers are formally arrested, the outcry against the Party at home and abroad would be sure to grow.
“The most disturbing thing is that there is no sign of the government relaxing its grip this time around,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, Sam Zarifi, said in a statement.
Ai had been somewhat protected by his fame and by being the son of a famed Communist poet, Ai Qing. His extended detention suggests the Party is re-drawing the boundaries of what it would tolerate, dissidents and scholars said.
Ai Xiaoming, the documentary maker, likened the intent behind the crackdown on dissent to the armed suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing in June 1989.
“They may perhaps think about 1989 and how killing that many people made for 20 years of stability,” she said. “Now they don’t need to kill people, but by detaining people willing to speak out, they think they can snuff out criticism for a long time.”
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Mike Collett-White in London and Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Robert Birsel and Laura MacInnis