China confirmed 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 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 Ai for unspecified economic crimes.
"It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression," Hong said.
"Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes, and 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.
Hong did not answer questions on what exact crime Ai is accused of, and he gave no other details.
Chinese authorities sometimes try to silence critics by accusing them of tax violations or other nonpolitical crimes. Beijing police refused to comment on Ai's case.
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, Hong dismissed their remarks, saying, "Other countries have no right to interfere."
Ai has had past run-ins with authorities, in particular for supporting victims of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but his wife Lu Qing said the current situation was worse.
In a formal letter to the Beijing police on Thursday, Lu demanded to know why her husband had been detained, his current whereabouts and condition, and also whether police would be giving her legal documents on his detention.
Under Chinese law, police are supposed to notify family members when detaining a suspect for longer than 24 hours, though authorities often make exceptions in politically charged cases, as Ai's appears to be.
"As of 8 a.m. today, it has been 96 hours since Ai Weiwei was taken away from the Beijing Airport, and I haven't heard a single word about him," she wrote.
Lu said she planned to send her letter to other authorities, including the courts, prosecutors, and the legal commission.
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.
In previous cases involving economic crimes that others saw as political persecution, Zhao Yan, a news assistant for The New York Times, was jailed for three years in 2007 on charges of financial fraud. Xu Zhiyong, an outspoken lawyer, was investigated for alleged tax evasion in 2009 but later released.
On Wednesday, in a critique of China's human rights record, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman saluted Ai and 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 said in a speech in Shanghai.