BEIJING — Chinese authorities on Sunday detained Ai Weiwei, one of the country’s most high-profile artists and a stubborn government critic, as he tried to board a plane for Hong Kong, his friends and associates said. Mr. Ai’s wife, nephew and a number of his employees were also taken into custody during a raid on his studio on the outskirts of the capital.
Rights advocates say the detentions are an ominous sign that the Communist Party’s six-week crackdown on rights lawyers, bloggers and dissidents is spreading to the upper reaches of Chinese society. Mr. Ai, 53, the son of a one of the country’s most beloved poets, is an internationally renowned artist, a documentary filmmaker and an architect who helped design the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.
Jennifer Ng, an assistant who accompanied Mr. Ai on Sunday morning, said he was taken away by uniformed officers as the two of them passed through customs at Beijing International Airport. Ms. Ng said she was told to board the plane alone because Mr. Ai “had other business” to attend to. She said Mr. Ai was planning to spend a day in Hong Kong before flying to Taiwan for a meeting about a possible exhibition.
A man who answered the phone at the Beijing Public Security Bureau on Sunday declined to answer questions about Mr. Ai’s whereabouts and hung up.
Shortly after Mr. Ai’s seizure, more than a dozen police raided the artist’s studio in the Caochangdi neighborhood, cut off power to part of that area and led away nearly a dozen employees, a mix of Chinese citizens and foreigners who are part of Mr. Ai’s large staff. By Sunday evening, the foreigners and several of the Chinese had been released after being questioned, according to one of Mr. Ai’s employees, who was not in the studio when the public security agents arrived.
“It’s not clear what they are looking for but we’re all really terrified,” said the employee, who asked not to be named for fear of drawing the attention of the police. She said the police had visited the studio three times last week to check on the documents of studio’s non-Chinese employees.
By targeting Mr. Ai, the authorities are expanding a campaign against dissent that has roiled China’s embattled community of liberal and reform-minded intellectuals. In recent weeks dozens of people have been detained, including some of the country’s best known writers and rights advocates. At least 11 of them have simply vanished into police custody. Two weeks ago, Liu Xianbin, a veteran dissident in Sichuan Province, was sentenced to 10 years on subversion charges.
Last week Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian novelist and democracy advocate whose blog postings are avidly followed on the mainland, disappeared in southern China as he tried to leave the country. Mr. Yang reappeared four days later, claiming he had been ill, but many friends interpreted his cryptic explanation as a roundabout acknowledgment that he had been detained by the police.
Mr. Ai has had previous run-ins with the authorities. In 2009, while preparing to testify at the trial of a fellow dissident in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, he said he was beaten by officers who crashed though the door of his hotel room in the middle of the night. A month later, while attending an art exhibition in Munich, he was rushed to a hospital, where surgeons drained a pool of blood from his brain. Doctors said he would have died without the emergency surgery.
Last November he was briefly confined to his home in Beijing by the police, who he said were instructed to prevent him from attending a party in Shanghai he had organized to commemorate the destruction of a million-dollar art studio that had been built at the behest of the local government. Although he never found out who ordered the demolition, he said he suspected powerful figures in Shanghai who were likely angered by his freewheeling criticism of the government. .
Until now, Mr. Ai’s stature has given him wide latitude in leveling public critiques against corruption and the strictures of Communist Party rule. Last year he created an Internet audio project in which volunteers read the names of nearly 5,000 children who were killed during the earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008. The project, along with a haunting art installation in Germany composed of thousands of children’s backpacks, were aimed at drawing attention to substandard construction that some experts say led to the collapse of many schools.
The most recent wave of detentions was triggered in February by an anonymous bulletin that originated on an American website urging Chinese citizens to publicly demand political change. The protest calls, inspired by the unrest in the Arab world, were effectively quashed by the authorities, who detained or questioned dozens of prominent reformers, lawyers as well as unknown bloggers who simply forwarded news of the protests via Twitter. At the time, Mr. Ai sent out a message that sought to dissuade people from taking to the street.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, described the ongoing crackdown as an attempt by the country’s public security apparatus to rollback the modest civil society advances that have taken root in recent years. “It’s an attempt to redefine the limits of what kind of criticism is tolerable,” he said. “The government is moving the goalposts and a lot of people are finding themselves targeted.”
After his beating at the hands of the police in 2009, Mr. Ai said he had no illusions about the consequence for those who refused to toe the line set down by the country’s leaders..
“They put you under house arrest, or they make you disappear,”‘ he said in an interview. “That’s all they can do. There’s no facing the issue and discussing it; it’s all a very simple treatment. “Every dirty job has to be done by the police. Then you become a police state, because they have to deal with every problem.”