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China crackdown widens: Outspoken artist feared detained

New York, April 4, 2011--The disappearance of internationally renowned artist and commentator Ai Weiwei is a disturbing indicator of the extent of the government's onslaught against its critics, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Ai was stopped in Beijing airport while preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong on Sunday and has not been heard from since, according to international news reports. City police raided his home and studio later that day, questioned his wife and assistants, and confiscated computers, the reports said.

The reason for his apparent detention was not clear, but Ai is among the most prominent of China's government critics, and commented frequently on injustice, including detentions of fellow dissidents, on his widely followed Twitter page. An unusually high number of activists, bloggers, online journalists, and writers have disappeared or been detained since February, when unsigned calls for anti-government protests in China, inspired by revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, appeared online. Ai's fame as an internationally recognized artist who helped design the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium, and the son of a renowned Chinese poet, led many to believe he was less at risk of government reprisal.

Chinese-language discussions of Ai were quickly deleted from the Internet, international news reports said. Internet censorship has also tightened in recent weeks.

"Ai Weiwei has long been a source of information and opinion that challenged the status quo in China," said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. "His disappearance is a deeply concerning sign that official tolerance for dissent in China has reached a low point."

Despite his stature, Ai has not been immune from harassment. His studio was destroyed in January, international news reports said. Police beat him in 2009 to prevent him from testifying at imprisoned journalist Tan Zuoren's trial. He and Tan documented the names of children killed as poorly constructed school buildings collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai also made a film of his efforts to secure the release of an assistant who had been detained. 

Some of the recent disappearances have already resulted in heavy penalties. Liu Xianbin, a democracy activist who wrote online articles, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for inciting subversion against the state in March. Well-known blogger Ran Yunfei has been indicted on the same charge.

In one recent more positive outcome, missing writer Yang Hengjun reappeared in Hong Kong after his disappearance. He denied having been in custody and said he had been in the hospital, although many supporters believe this to be a euphemism for secret detention. "I am so grateful for the outside media's support, but I ask that they understand that I can't keep having media attention and continue my pursuit of democracy in China," he told Australian newspaper The Age.

Yang commented on the Chinese media's silence about his case: "Lots of Chinese journalists who are my great friends asked after me and did everything they could for me, but I could not help thinking that not one of them had asked any questions as journalists," he told the newspaper. "When everyone thought I had been kidnapped, they all assumed it was by the government--doesn't that tell you something?--and the Chinese media knew they should not even ask."

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