China confirmed on Thursday that it has detained a renowned artist who had been missing for four days, but insisted his case involves economic crimes and not human rights.
Ai Weiwei, an internationally famed avant-garde artist who is also an outspoken government critic, was last seen early on Sunday in police custody after he was barred from boarding a flight to Hong Kong at a Beijing airport.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news conference that police were investigating Mr. Ai for unspecified economic crimes. “It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression,” Mr. Hong said.
“The public security authorities are conducting an investigation according to law. China is a country under the rule of law and relevant authorities will work according to law,” he said, giving no other details.
Beijing police refused to comment on Mr. Ai’s case.
Mr. Ai is among China’s best—known artists internationally and recently exhibited at the Tate Modern gallery in London.
He is the most prominent target so far in China’s massive crackdown on dozens of lawyers, writers and activists following online calls for protests similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa. No protests have occurred here.
Several countries, including the U.S., Britain, and Germany, have raised concerns about his detention. However, Mr. Hong dismissed their remarks, saying, “Other countries have no right to interfere.”
Mr. Ai has had past run—ins with authorities, in particular for supporting victims of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but his wife said the current situation was worse.
His detention has sent a chill through the activist community and prompted many to call for his release online through Twitter messages or blog postings.
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman mentioned Mr. Ai 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,” Mr. Huntsman, who leaves his post later this month, said in a speech in Shanghai.