Beijing: Groundbreaking Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been allowed his first family visit after more than a month in detention, his sister said Monday, in a case that the U.S. and other governments have criticized as a sign of China's deteriorating human rights.
Beijing police took Ai's wife, Lu Qing, to an undisclosed location Sunday night where she was able to see and talk briefly with her husband who seemed healthy, said the artist's sister Gao Ge.
Ai, one of China's best-known contemporary artists, was taken away April 3 as he prepared to board a flight to Hong Kong from Beijing's Capital International Airport.
The Foreign Ministry has said he is being investigated for suspected economic crimes, but his detention comes amid a crackdown on dissent apparently sparked by fears that anti-government demonstrations such as those in the Arab world could erupt in China. Ai had been keeping an informal tally on Twitter of the dozens of bloggers, writers and other intellectuals who were being detained or arrested in the campaign before he was taken away.
Police have yet to give Ai's family any formal notification of arrest or, until now, confirmed that he was in custody. It remains unclear where he is being held.
"They weren't allowed to talk about much. They sat across a table from each other," Gao told The Associated Press by telephone. "Lu Qing didn't check the exact time, but it was a very short visit. ... It seems he's being taken care of, taking medicine on time and is able to move around. But other topics were off limits."
Ai, 53, suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. Gao added that her family is relieved to know that Ai is well, but hopes the government can clarify what is going on with his case.
"Now that we've seen that his health is OK, of course we are a bit less anxious, but that's not to say we want him to stay where he is," Gao said. "We really want this case to be dealt with as soon as possible and for the government to follow proper procedures in keeping with Chinese law."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and officials from the European Union and elsewhere have called on China to release Ai and criticized Beijing for what they say is backsliding on human rights.
Ai is famous in artistic circles for performance pieces that explored the dizzying change of contemporary China and, more popularly, for being a designer on the iconic "Bird's Nest" national stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
His influence has ranged far beyond that of the usual contemporary artist. His outrage at the deaths of so many students in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 turned him into a social activist and tapped into anger among many Chinese at official corruption and indifference. He took to Twitter, prolificly tweeting not only his social criticism but his everyday doings, attracting more than 70,000 followers, even though Twitter is blocked by China's Internet filtering.
In the wake of his arrest, Chinese have sought to get around the filtering to express solidarity with Ai, posting messages to "love the future" — a phrase that sounds like Ai's name in Chinese. On the third anniversary of the Sichuan quake last Thursday, the aggressive Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper ran an editorial commemorating the dead and drawing oblique reference to Ai.
"They lived happily on this earth for seven years," the editorial said, using a phrase from a parent of one of the dead school children that became the title of one of Ai's works of art.
First Published: Monday, May 16, 2011, 13:03