BEIJING – One of China's most famous contemporary artists has been missing for more than a day after he was blocked from taking a flight out of the country, an assistant said Monday.
The disappearance of artist Ai Weiwei comes as China carries out a massive crackdown on lawyers, writers and activists, arresting and detaining dozens since February when online calls for protests similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa began to circulate. No public protests have emerged.
Ai, an outspoken government critic, has been keeping an informal tally of those detentions on Twitter, where he has more than 70,000 followers. Ai, who has been barred from going abroad before, was stopped while preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong on Sunday. Police later raided his Beijing studio.
An assistant, who did not want to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the incident, said Ai was going through customs at the Beijing Capital International Airport early Sunday when two officials escorted him away, leaving a traveling companion to board the flight alone.
The assistant said Monday that there had been no word from Ai since. A faxed question to police was not immediately answered.
It was not clear why the 53-year-old artist and architectural designer was barred from taking the flight or who was now holding him.
Police later arrived at Ai's studio with a search warrant and took several staff members to a police station for questioning, said the assistant, who was among the group taken by police.
Around two dozen uniformed and plainclothes police could be seen in and around Ai's studio Sunday afternoon. An Associated Press videographer was told by police to stop filming and leave the area.
Ai, an avant-garde artist who recently exhibited at the Tate Modern gallery in London, was stopped from boarding a flight to Seoul in December. That incident came shortly after he had been invited to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, honoring jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion.
Ai said at the time that police had blocked him at the boarding gate and showed him a handwritten note that said he could cause damage to national security by leaving.
The son of one of China's most famous modern poets, Ai was courted by the Communist government as a cultural ambassador before his advocacy on behalf of social activists apparently made him a target of Chinese authorities.
Known for his distinctive scraggly beard and stocky frame, Ai was a consultant for the futuristic Bird's Nest stadium at the Beijing Olympics before souring on the event. He was later beaten and detained while attempting to attend the trial of an advocate for victims of the devastating 2008 earthquake in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Alison Klayman, an American filmmaker who has been working on a documentary about Ai for more than two years, said Beijing police visited Ai's studio three times in the past week, checking the passports and identification of Chinese and foreign assistants working there and some visiting architecture students from Europe.
Klayman said by telephone from New York that she had not heard of any word from Ai since he was stopped from boarding his flight. - AP