BEIJING, China — China acknowledged Thursday that acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei is in custody, under investigation for “economic crimes,” but a spokesman denied he was detained for his ongoing criticism of the Chinese regime.
A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Ai, co-creator of Beijing’s iconic National Stadium and a world-renowned artist, had not been imprisoned for his ongoing criticism of the Chinese government. Ai is an outspoken advocate of free expression and has been chronicling the recent crackdown on bloggers, lawyers and other critics.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei refused to elaborate on Ai’s situation and potential charges, ending the regular news conference after about 15 minutes when he saw that most questions coming from the packed room were about Ai and the political crackdown afoot in China.
“I think you have heard me clearly,” Hong said after repeated questioning. “Mr. Ai is under investigation on economic crimes. It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression.”
“The Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of expression,” he continued. “Meanwhile, the citizens must act within the law.”
Ai disappeared on Sunday, apparently grabbed by customs agents at the Beijing airport while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. He has not been heard from by his family or associates since. Local police refuse to discuss specifics of where he is being held or on what charges.
Two Chinese lawyers familiar with Ai and his situation said Thursday that if he is being held for investigation of economic crimes, his family should have been notified within 24 hours. There has been no information. Economic crimes in China typically refer to fraud and corruption, but there is a long list of possibilities, lawyers said.
Ai’s disappearance, the highest-profile yet amidst a massive crackdown on critics of the Chinese regime, has drawn international condemnation. The Foreign Ministry spokesman rebuffed that criticism on Thursday, saying China “is a country run by the rule of law.”
"We hope that the countries concerned will respect China's decision," he said. "This has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression."
The government first confirmed Ai’s detention after midnight on Wednesday, when the official Xinhua news agency wrote one line saying he was under investigation. The item disappeared from the news wire’s website a short time later.
“Police authorities said late Wednesday they are investigating Ai Weiwei for suspected economic crimes in accordance with the law,” Xinhua said.
Earlier in the day, in a harshly worded editorial, the Global Times newspaper said Ai was not above the law, but that paper cited only Western media reports of Ai’s disappearance and shed no further light on his plight.
Meanwhile international pressure is amassing for Ai’s release. Jon Huntsman, the departing U.S. ambassador, sharply criticized China for political detentions in a speech Wednesday – his last before leaving the post. Huntsman, an appointee of President Barack Obama, is expected to seek the Republican nomination for president to run against Obama next year. He warned that pressure for China to ease up on political detentions will continue.
“Long after I depart Beijing, future ambassadors will continue to visit American citizens like Dr. Feng Xue, who was wrongfully convicted of stealing state secrets and is now serving an eight-year sentence in prison far from his family in the United States,” Huntsman said in Shanghai. “They will continue to speak up in defense of social activists, like [writer] Liu Xiaobo, [lawyer] Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times.”
“The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur,” he added.
When asked about the broader sweep of political dissent going on across China, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said he was unaware of the situation and reiterated his statements about China’s guarantees of free expression.