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As Crackdown Continues, Chinese State Media Dismiss Concerns Over Detained Artist


Chinese artist Ai Weiwei throws porcelain sunflower seeds into the air as he poses with his "Sunflower Seeds" installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern art gallery in London in October 2010.
A Chinese state newspaper has rejected Western condemnation of the detention of prominent artist and social activist Ai Weiwei, saying it amounted to an attack against China.

Chinese authorities have said nothing -- even to his family -- about the whereabouts of Ai, who was stopped on April 3 from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and taken away by border police. He is being investigated for "suspected economic crimes."

Corinna-Barbara Francis, an East Asia researcher at Amnesty International in London, tells RFE/RL that the 53-year-old artist appears to have joined dozens of dissidents and activists put in detention or informal custody recently.

"He's becoming -- and I would say he's become -- a very important symbol of someone who stands up to the authorities, who has the courage to speak out," Francis says. "He's not calling for an overthrow of the government, he's simply calling for people to be allowed to express different opinions, to talk about how China needs to change, and what should be done so China can move forward in a healthy way."

An editorial in China's "Global Times" says Western criticism following his disappearance amounts to "a hasty assault on China's fundamental judicial sovereignty."

The paper says Ai had been testing the bounds of official tolerance: "Ai Weiwei probably understands that on many occasions he has come close to the red line of Chinese law."

The editorial adds that "history will render its own verdict on people like Ai Weiwei, and before then they may pay some price for their own special choices."

Nervous In Beijing?

Ai's detention has sparked condemnation from Western governments and human rights advocates who see the case as part of a crackdown on dissent in China following protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said the detention was "inconsistent with the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all Chinese citizens."

The European Union's ambassador in China, Markus Ederer, expressed concern over "the increasing use of arbitrary detention against human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists in China."

An online appeal on February 17 called for peaceful protests in China's major cities, but Francis says that effort did not result in any significant protests.

"There were so many police that there were simply no visible protests at all that were even possible. But dozens and dozens of people have been arrested and detained simply for having blogged about these things and passed a Twitter message about the 'Jasmine Revolution.'"

Amnesty International says the Chinese government has been waging a campaign of harassment and intimidation of lawyers to discourage them from defending the dozens of activists and political critics rounded up by authorities.

The campaign group says at least a dozen more lawyers claim they have been briefly detained, pressured by the authorities, or even told by police to stop tweeting about detained people.

According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 25 lawyers, activists, and bloggers were detained, arrested, or "disappeared" by state authorities in the weeks following the call for a "Jasmine Revolution." Between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to repressive measures ranging from police summonses to house arrest.

The New York-based group says the government has also "significantly increased its censorship of the Internet, forced several liberal newspaper editors to step down, and imposed new restrictions on foreign media reporting in Beijing."

Politically 'Sensitive'

Ai's supporters braved censorship to launch an online petition urging his release.

A friend of Ai's, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, told Reuters that authorities might regret targeting someone who enjoys the support of many young Chinese.

"Ai Weiwei's detention above all shows the authorities' own fear," Pu told the agency. "They don't know how to manage this society, or how to deal with liberal, independent people. By trampling on the respect that others have for him, they have in reality shot themselves in the foot."

In a statement, the Lisson Gallery, which represents Ai in London, says it is greatly concerned for the artist's safety, adding that he "consistently displays great courage in placing himself at risk to affect social change through his art."

Ai is an internationally renowned artist who helped design Beijing's National Stadium -- known as the "Bird's Nest" -- for the 2008 Olympics. He is currently exhibiting his work at London's Tate Modern gallery.

He has also repeatedly challenged Chinese authorities, taking part in a number of campaigns for basic rights and freedoms.

Ai was involved in a project to collect the names of the thousands of schoolchildren killed in a massive 2008 earthquake in southwestern China.

He was reportedly detained and beaten in 2009, preventing him from testifying at the trial of another activist in Sichuan.

Late last year, he launched a "citizen's investigation" into a Shanghai fire that killed 58 people.

In January, his newly built Shanghai studio was demolished by the local government in apparent retaliation for criticizing city policies.

A month later, he said a retrospective exhibition planned for March had been canceled because he was considered politically "too sensitive."

The controversial artist told France's AFP news agency last week he planned to set up a studio in Germany to showcase his work due to the hurdles faced in his homeland.

based on RFE/RL and agency reports