Chinese artist felt detainment coming, wife says

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BEIJING (AP) - Multiple police visits in the week before renowned artist Ai Weiwei was detained triggered foreboding that this harassment was different, his wife said.

“He felt a premonition that he would be detained,” said Lu Qing in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. “He told me something might happen to him.”

Ai, an internationally famed avant-garde artist who also has been an outspoken government critic, was last seen early Sunday in police custody after he was barred from boarding a flight to Hong Kong from a Beijing airport.

Lu said she has had no contact or word from him since. Police later seized computers and money at their home but refused to give her an explanation.

The official Xinhua News Agency said in a one-sentence report early Thursday that Ai was under investigation for “suspected economic crimes.” Chinese authorities sometimes try to silence or intimidate government critics by pursuing them for alleged tax violations or other non-political crimes.

Ai is a successful international artist, and earns a substantial living from gallery installations and artwork sales.

He is the most prominent target so far in China’s massive crackdown against dozens of lawyers, writers and activists following online calls for protests here similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa. No protests have emerged here.

Ai has had past run-ins with authorities, in particular for his advocacy for victims of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but his wife said the current situation is worse. Though he has courted trouble with his activism in the past, it appears that he has crossed a line in China’s latest crackdown against critics.

“This is very serious. So many people searching the house and it’s been more than 48 hours since I’ve heard from him. I’m very worried about his situation, especially his health,” said Lu, who added that the 53-year-old Ai suffers from multiple illnesses for which he takes medication.

Lu said the two had discussed the possibility of something happening to him, but she never dreamed the reality would mean electricity being cut from their home and bank accounts being frozen.

“We have spoken about this in the past but I never imagined it would be like this _ that they would come to our house, search through our private things, with 40-50 policemen coming in and out,” she said.

Amid growing concern over Ai’s fate, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman mentioned the artist among other activists 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,” Huntsman, who leaves his post later this month, said in a speech in the commercial hub of Shanghai.

Among China’s best-known artists internationally, Ai recently exhibited at the Tate Modern gallery in London.

Ai’s apparent detention sent a chill through the activist community and prompted many to rally for his release online by posting supportive Twitter messages or blog postings.

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