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Ai arrest shows escalating crackdown

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei holds some seeds from his 'Sunflower Seeds' exhibit at The Tate Modern in London on Oct.11, 2010.

BEIJING – The reported detention of one of China's most high-profile artists and dissidents, Ai Weiwei, is fueling speculation that China's ongoing crackdown to prevent call for protests similar to the ones seen in the Middle East and North Africa is reaching a new, more aggressive, phase.

Ai's wife and artist Lu Qing told NBC News in a phone interview that more than 24 hours after police detained her husband at Beijing’s airport she has not received any official notification of his status or whereabouts.

“I am certainly concerned because there is no news about him,” she said.

Ai’s arrest comes in the midst of what has been China’s “most severe” crackdown in a decade over the last few weeks, according to Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

At least 25 lawyers, activists and bloggers have been detained, arrested or have “disappeared” since mid-February, including six of China's most prominent human rights lawyers, according to Richardson. In addition, between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to various forms of house arrest and control.

The latest development shows “a turning point in the crackdown because the arrest of someone of the stature of Ai could only have been carried out with approval of a top leader,” Human Rights Watch spokesman in Hong Kong Nicholas Bequelin told NBC News. He added that the message of the arrest is “clearly designed to intimidate.”

Ai, a 53-year-old artist and architectural designer is internationally renowned. He was a consultant on the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium at the Beijing Olympics and recently had an exhibit at the Tate Modern gallery in London. The son of one China’s most famous modern poets, he has also been a famously outspoken critic of the Communist government. 

Bequelin pointed to the increasing power of China's security apparatus since the 2008 Olympic Games, which he says has “seized on the pretext of the Jasmine revolution” to launch a comprehensive crackdown. “The silence of the West has directly contributed to the hardline turn; the reformers within the system are undermined by the lack of pressure,” he added.

In the meantime, people close to Ai are increasingly worried about his situation. His assistant Jennifer Ng recounted to NBC News the airport incident on Sunday when he was blocked from boarding a flight to Hong Kong. She described the police behavior as “civil” when they told her that Ai had “other business” and could not take the flight.

Ng Han Guan / AP

A Chinese police officer, right, and a security guard stand guard near Ai Weiwei's studio in Beijing on Sunday.

“We are just concerned about the situation of Ai Weiwei,” said another assistant, Liu Yanping, He confirmed that eight staff personnel from Ai’s Beijing studio who had been summoned by the police have since been released.

But Ai’s lawyer was not optimistic about when they would hear about his whereabouts.

“It may take up to 48 hours before any official notification is received about Ai Weiwei’s status,” said lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who has been rendering legal services to the artist since 2008.

Asked whether the reported detention and disappearance of human rights lawyers is cause for personal concern, he told NBC News that the “law is the law.”

“I am not concerned because the law allows for lawyers to be allowed to represent clients, be they murderers or political dissenters,” he said.