Multiple police visits in the week before renowned artist Ai Weiwei was detained triggered foreboding that this harassment was different, his wife said Wednesday.
"He felt a premonition that he would be detained," said Lu Qing in an interview with The Associated Press. "He told me something might happen to him."
Ai, an internationally famed avant-garde artist who also has been an outspoken government critic, was last seen early Sunday in police custody after he was barred from boarding a flight to Hong Kong from a Beijing airport.
Lu said she has had no contact or word from him since. Police later seized computers and money at their home but refused to give her an explanation.
Ai is the most prominent target so far in China's massive crackdown against dozens of lawyers, writers and activists following online calls for protests here similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa. No protests have emerged here.
Ai has had past run-ins with authorities, in particular for his advocacy for victims of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but his wife said the current situation is worse. Though he has courted trouble with his activism in the past, it appears that he has crossed a line in China's latest crackdown against critics.
"This is very serious. So many people searching the house and it's been more than 48 hours since I've heard from him. I'm very worried about his situation, especially his health," said Lu, who added that the 53-year-old Ai suffers from multiple illnesses for which he takes medication.
Lu said the two had discussed the possibility of something happening to him, but she never dreamed the reality would mean electricity being cut from their home and bank accounts being frozen.
"We have spoken about this in the past but I never imagined it would be like this _ that they would come to our house, search through our private things, with 40-50 policemen coming in and out," she said.
A state newspaper editorial Wednesday was unusually critical of Ai while not confirming whether he had been detained. China rarely comments on detained dissidents before they are formally charged, but the decision underscored Ai's high profile and suggested China is building a criminal case against him for his social activism.
The editorial in the Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party's flagship People's Daily, said Ai engaged in "legally ambiguous activities" and that Chinese law "won't bend to mavericks." It didn't specify what laws Ai was suspected of breaking.
Amid growing concern over Ai's fate, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman mentioned the artist 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," Huntsman, who leaves his post later this month, said in a speech in the commercial hub of Shanghai.
In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Ai "must be released, he must be able to continue pursuing his artistic work."
"The incident shows how important it is that we must not let up in our efforts for more openness and for free rights in China," said Westerwelle, who visited China last week.
Among China's best-known artists internationally, Ai recently exhibited at the Tate Modern gallery in London. The exhibited work, Sunflower Seeds, was made up of 100 million painted porcelain "seeds" scattered over a large area. It was a contemplation on mass consumption, Chinese industry, famine and collective work.
Ai's 78-year-old mother Gao Ying told The Associated Press by telephone that she's been sleepless since her son disappeared and on Tuesday sent a mass text appeal to the public to help find him.
"I am a mother who has lost her son, and has no place to look for him," she said. "Can someone tell me whether he has been detained, arrested and why? Where is the evidence of his crime? ... I don't understand why no one has contacted us, and why no one has explained anything to us."
Ai's late father was one of China's most famous modern poets, Ai Qing, and that stature led many to believe he was more protected from serious attack or formal arrest. He had been courted by the government as a cultural ambassador before his advocacy on behalf of social activists apparently made him a target of Chinese authorities.
Growing up in a family that was "targeted and discriminated against" in the 1950s and 1960s for his father's alleged political crimes made Ai Weiwei particularly sensitive to injustice, his mother said.
"Issues like human rights, equality, democracy have been seeded in him since he was very, very young," Gao said.
Ai's disappearance has sent a chill through the activist community and prompted many to rally for his release online by posting supportive Twitter messages or blog postings.
Zhao Lianhai, a Beijing writer jailed last year for protesting a massive tainted milk scandal, released a video on YouTube saying how the crackdown on activists had left him "in a very agonized state of mind."
"In particular, a few days ago we found out that Ai Weiwei, our Old Ai, has also been made to disappear and so far there has been no clear declaration from the authorities about it."
Associated Press writers Isolda Morillo, Christopher Bodeen and Alexa Olesen contributed to this report.