Chinese netizens braved official censorship to launch a campaign on Monday in support of detained prominent artist and social activist Ai Weiwei amid international calls for his release.
In spite of direct censorship of Ai's name on the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo, netizens managed to launch an "event" titled "Looking for a fat guy called Ai," garnering dozens of followers within a short space of time.
"Sometimes, life throws mysterious and unexpected things our way. For example, you wouldn't expect someone suddenly just to disappear," the event description read a day after Ai was detained at a Beijing airport while trying to catch a flight to Hong Kong.
"Would you just relax and go with the flow, or would you go looking for him? I firmly believe that you will understand the meaning of this event," it said.
Ai, 57, is a top artist who helped design Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympics, and is currently exhibiting his "Sunflower Seeds" installation at London's Tate Modern gallery.
An inveterate Twitter user himself, Ai has taken part in a number of campaigns to protect the most vulnerable in Chinese society, including an online memorial installation which recorded the names of thousands of children killed in the collapse of school buildings during the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
On Twitter, which is blocked by China's Great Firewall, hundreds of users still managed to sign up to a petition calling for Ai's release.
"Venerable Ai, the Venerable Ai is calling you home for dinner!," wrote user luanshifusheng on Sina Weibo, echoing recent campaigns to release detained activists across China.
"I asked my conscience, and I had to take part in this event," wrote user Yidaoyongchezhouhang on the Sina event listing.
"Often Climbs the Wall" wrote: "Fatty Ai, did you know that thousands of grass-mud horses [netizens against censorship] are worrying about you and looking for you?"
"Fatty" is considered a term of endearment in China.
"The best gift for us would be if Ai could return home," tweeted @yangguangsaner2011.
Ai's wife said police had searched the couple's Beijing home cum studio after his disappearance on Sunday.
His assistant said in an interview on Sunday Ai was stopped by airport officials as he tried to board the Hong Kong flight with a group of employees.
He 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.
"After they were done searching, they confiscated some things and made me sign for them, and they took me down to the police station to make a statement," Ai's wife Lu Qing said on Monday.
"I asked them where he was, but they all said they didn't know."
Lu said the police had taken Ai's computer and some papers.
"Computer, DVDs, hard drive and papers. There was no way to carry on working after they took everything," she said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who was himself detained at the weekend, said it was still unclear whether Ai would be formally charged.
"Normally, they detain you for 12 hours for a summons," Liu said. "I don't know right now what legal process they have set in motion."
He said that detentions lasting more than 48 hours should result in criminal charges, but that the recent crackdown had seen a number of 'disappearances' with no charges brought against detainees.
"There are some people who have been held for more than 40 days without being formally detained," Liu said. "It's very hard to tell right now if they are subjecting him to some kind of house arrest."
Ai's detention made headline news around the world, sparking condemnation from the French and German governments.
"I appeal to the Chinese government to urgently provide clarification and I expect Ai Weiwei to be released immediately," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement on Monday.
France also called for Ai's release. "We are very concerned about the fate of the militant artist Ai Weiwei and we are following his situation and that of his family very closely," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
"We hope he will be released as soon as possible," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, the Tate Gallery said in a statement: "We are dismayed by developments that again threaten [Ai]'s right to speak freely as an artist, and hope that he will be released immediately."
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was concerned about Ai's fate.
"The Chinese government is stepping up its harassment of the remaining prominent dissidents and is trying to silence all of its critics," the group said in a statement on its website.
"We urge the international community to react firmly to the arrests of bloggers and cyber-dissidents that are taking place at an unprecedented rate," it said.
One of Ai’s assistants told RSF that Ai was arrested at the airport as he was going through immigration, the group said.
The authorities separated him from the people accompanying him and turned off his mobile phone, it added.
Moving base to Germany
Police had visited Ai's studio in Beijing's Caochangdi district several times last week, prompting Ai to say he planned to move his work base to Germany.
"It's very discouraging what's happening here and if I want to continue to develop my work, I have to find a base," he told Agence France-Presse.
Eight of Ai's employees were held for questioning on Monday and later released, RSF said.
"When a Guardian reporter used a mobile phone to photograph the outside of Ai’s studio, plainclothes police seized the phone and deleted the photo," RSF said. "They also told him to leave."
It said all mention of Ai’s arrest has been deleted from Chinese news sites.
According to RSF, 77 cyber-dissidents and 30 journalists are currently being detained in China, which ranked 171st out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index.
Reported in Mandarin by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.