The 53-year-old, who designed the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium, has been an outspoken critic of the government. Although he has previously experienced harassment by officials, he appeared to be relatively protected by the status of his late father, a renowned poet, and his high international profile; last year, he created the Sunflower Seeds installation for Tate Modern.
His detention comes amid a wider crackdown on activists and dissidents, which human rights campaigners describe as the worst in over a decade. At least 23 people have been detained, mostly in relation to incitement to subversion or creating a disturbance. Three more have been formally arrested and more than a dozen are missing, including high profile human rights lawyers.
Ai was due to fly to Hong Kong for business this morning, but was detained at immigration on his way out of Beijing. An officer told an assistant who was travelling with him that the artist had “other business” and could not board the plane.
Between 15 and 20 uniformed and plain clothes police surrounded his studio in Caochangdi, in the north of the capital, and more were believed to be searching it. Power to the neighbourhood was cut off.
Men who appeared to be plainclothes police grabbed the phone of a Guardian journalist who took a photograph of the scene and deleted the image. A uniformed officer told the reporter: “You are not allowed to be on this street. You must leave.”
One resident said: “I went outside to see what was going on and saw a lot of police…I cannot understand it. What has he done?”