The EU's foreign policy chief expressed alarm at the "deterioration of human rights" in China and called Tuesday for a halt to arbitrary arrests and disappearances, joining a growing international outcry against the crackdown.
Catherine Ashton called for the immediate releases of renowned artist Ai Weiwei and dozens of other activists, lawyers and intellectuals detained in recent weeks and months.
The artist was detained by security officials on April 3 as he attempted to board a plane to Hong Kong in Beijing. China says he is under investigation for suspected economic crimes, a charge used against dissidents in the past as a form of political persecution.
Ai 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.
"I am alarmed at the arrest of Ai Wei Wei. Arbitrary arrests and disappearances must cease," she said. "I urge China to release all of those who have been detained for exercising their universally recognized right to freedom of expression."
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei struck out at the foreign criticism. The governments of Germany, the United States, and Britain, along with others, have called for Ai's release.
"Why is it some countries and people consider a Chinese criminal a hero? ... No matter what reputation one may have had in the past, once he breaks the law, he will have to face legal punishment," Hong said.
Hong said the government's handling of Ai's case will show that China "runs the country according to law and no one is entitled to be above the law."
On Tuesday, Ai's wife, Lu Qing, told the Associated Press she was called in by the tax bureau for questions regarding the company that Ai uses for his art activities. The 90-minute session was about the company's various activities, she said.
Ai, an outspoken government critic, is among China's best-known artists internationally and helped design the iconic Bird's Nest Olympic stadium.
"I am deeply concerned at the deterioration in the human rights situation in China. In recent weeks, a large number of lawyers, writers, journalists, petitioners, artists and bloggers have been subject to arbitrary arrest and other forms of harassment or have simply disappeared. In other cases, long prison sentences have been imposed on dissidents," Ashton said.