Chinese authorities on Sunday detained one of the country's most prominent artists and eight of his staff and raided his studio and home in Beijing in the latest crackdown on dissent that has raised alarm among Western governments and rights groups.
Ai Weiwei, also an outspoken government critic, was stopped by airport officials at the Beijing airport and prevented from traveling to Hong Kong, his assistant said in an interview.
A number of Wei's assistants who were with him and were to have accompanied him on the trip might also have been taken away, the assistant said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Several of his assistants, I don't know the exact number. [They were] going to Hong Kong," she said, adding that she had lost contact with Ai.Jasmine crackdown
The 53-year-old artist, who is well known overseas and has often criticized Beijing about human rights, is believed to be most high-profile activist detained so far in an ongoing government crackdown on dozens of bloggers, human rights lawyers, and writers.
The crackdown on government critics was launched since anonymous calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China partly inspired by pro-democracy movements in the Middle East began circulating online in mid-February.
The assistant said Ai's studio was also "searched" by the police. "Eight of the staff have been led away," she said.
Some news reports said his studio and house compound had been cordoned off and the electricity supply also severed. References to Ai were deleted from Sina Weibo, the popular Twitter-like microblogging service, although they remained on many other sites.
RFA tried contacting Ai on his mobile phone but it was shut off.
Ai has been prevented from leaving the country several times, on the grounds that he "may endanger national security."
In November, he was stopped from boarding a flight to South Korea, shortly after he had been invited to attend a ceremony in Oslo marking the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
In the same month, he was briefly put under house arrest to prevent him from attending a party he had organized in Shanghai to mark the demolition of his studio there.
Since last week, his studio was the target of frequent harassment by the authorities.
Last Wednesday, the authorities sent personnel to "check the fire-prevention equipment," and the day after that, a dozen public security officers went to "check" the assistants' identity cards at the studio.
Ai had announced last week that he was planning to set up a studio in Germany as he faced problems exhibiting his works inside China. He had played a key role in contemporary Chinese art over the last two decades, and helped create the Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium in his home city before he turned critical of the games.Criticism
Ai's detention is expected to trigger wider criticism of Beijing over the crackdown on dissent.
The U.S. State Department last week said it was increasingly concerned about China's human rights record.
"Recent events in China, including the forced disappearances of rights lawyers and crackdowns on Chinese and foreign journalists, have only further increased our concerns about human rights," Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told a congressional hearing.
Human Rights Watch, a U.S. rights monitoring group, has called on the European Union, the United States, and other governments to call for the United Nations Human Rights Council to review the deteriorating human rights situation in China.
Since February 16, it said, up to 25 lawyers, activists, and bloggers have been detained, arrested, or "disappeared" by state authorities.
Between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to an array of repressive measures ranging from police summonses to house arrest, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Friday.
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.
"The current crackdown on activists in China is the most severe in a decade," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments concerned with human rights in China should not continue with 'business as usual' while peaceful critics are being locked up one by one."Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.