RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In China, authorities have been keeping a watchful eye on developments in the Middle East and have been carrying out their harshest crackdown on dissenters in years. Now they've blocked one of China's most famous artists from leaving the country.
Ai Weiwei is best known for helping design Beijing's soaring Olympic stadium, known as the Birds Nest. He was detained at Beijing airport yesterday and has not been heard from since. As NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, he is the highest profile activist to be detained so far.
LOUISA LIM: Ai Weiwei's fans consider him a god. They even call him Ai God. He's called himself a brand for liberal thinking and individualism. His art has long been overtly political. But after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, it took on a new urgency. He organized a campaign, listing the names of students who died when shoddy schools collapse. He was badly beaten by Sichuan police, causing a head injury. But his friend, gallery owner Meg Maggio, says Ai is driven by a mission. She describes it as giving a voice to the voiceless.
Ms. MEG MAGGIO (Art Gallery Owner): He video-shoots everyone. He Twitters about everything. So he's trying to build a modern day history of what he sees as social injustice.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)
LIM: Building that history of social injustice was always going to put him on a collision course with the authorities. Back in November, as victims of injustice sang their grievances, he appeared outside the courtroom at the trial of a fellow artist to bear witness. He admitted he'd already been warned about his behavior by police.
Mr. AI WEIWEI (Artist): The actual words is they said that they are really deeply worried, and that they think what I'm doing is very dangerous. I don't think it's a threat. I think it's a frustration. I think they don't know how to deal with things. They don't know how to communicate. Also, it's beyond their control.
LIM: Since then, the authorities in Shanghai demolished Ai Weiwei's newly-built studio, while he was confined to his Beijing house.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: In a typical gesture merging politics and art, Ai used Twitter to organize a demolition party from afar. River crab was served, a dish laced with political satire, since the words sound the same as the government's favorite slogan: harmonious society.
Ai is a prolific tweeter, including tweeting the three occasions last week police visited his Beijing studio. Yesterday, police raided that studio, confiscating his computers and keeping one assistant in custody.
Alison Klayman has been shooting a documentary about Ai Weiwei. She says he always knew this day might come.
Ms. ALISON KLAYMAN (Director, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"): This is a risk that he, like everyone else, knew was always there. When people ask him the question, you know: How do you get away with what you get away with? His frequent response is, you know: Am I really getting away with things? Haven't I been beaten? Haven't I been detained in the hotel in Chengdu? Haven't I, you know, been kept from leaving the country?
LIM: This crackdown comes as China eyes the Jasmine uprisings in the Middle East nervously. Human rights groups say around 40 Chinese activists, including lawyers and bloggers, have been swept up. Some believe this crackdown represents a new front in Beijing's ideological battle.
Dr. NICHOLAS BEQUELIN (Human Rights Watch): What we're seeing now is an attempt by the government to roll back the ideas of universal values.
LIM: Nicholas Bequelin from Human Rights Watch.
Dr. BEQUELIN: More than one of the periodic crackdown that we've been witnessing in China for the past 20 years, this one is more fundamental. It is a readjustment between the real nature of the regime - which is a one-party state and the reality of Chinese society, which has developed many fields where expression is out of the control of the state.
LIM: Many believed Ai's worldwide fame and his status as the son of one of China's finest modern poets would protect him. But the longer Ai Weiwei is in custody, the clearer the message is: Activism has a price, and no one is insulated anymore.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.