Condemnation follows Ai Weiwei detention
Western nations Monday condemned the detention by Beijing police of outspoken Chinese artist and social critic Ai Weiwei, which Amnesty International said showed "China's time for open dissent has come to an end."
"I learned with great concern that Ai Weiwei was prevented from leaving Beijing on Sunday and has since been held," Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
He added in a statement that on a recent visit to Beijing he had impressed on Chinese leaders the importance of freedom of opinion and human rights.
"I call for an urgent explanation from the Chinese government and expect Ai Weiwei to be released without delay," Westerwelle said.
In Paris French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, "We are very concerned about the fate of the militant artist Ai Weiwei and we are following his situation and that of his family very closely."
"We hope he will be released as soon as possible," Valero told reporters.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger also expressed concern was in contact with the Chinese authorities to get him freed, Vienna said.
Spindelegger had met with Ai on a visit to Beijing in February.
The artist's detention as he was about to fly to Hong Kong follows that of scores of dissidents, activists, and rights lawyers in recent weeks, with many placed under house arrest or disappearing into police custody.
The clampdown followed anonymous online calls since February for protests each Sunday around the country to demand political change in China -- aimed at emulating those that have rocked the Arab world.
The disappearance of Ai -- -- whose work is on display at London's Tate Modern gallery until May 2 -- drew immediate concern from numerous human rights groups.
Amnesty International said it was a "troubling development" and part of a "widening crackdown on dissent" in China.
"We've already seen the chilling effect the 'Jasmine Revolution'-related arrests have had on Chinese activists and 'netizens' over the past month. Holding Ai Weiwei takes this to another level," said Donna Guest, Amnesty's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region.
"If the authorities are so bold as to grab this world-renowned artist in broad daylight at Beijing airport, it's frightening to think how they might treat other, lesser known dissidents," Guest said.
Amnesty said Ai had not even played any role in calling for protests inspired by uprisings in the Middle East and the Gulf.
"There seems to be no reason whatsoever for his detention, other than that the authorities are trying to broadcast the message that China's time for open dissent has come to an end," Guest said.
Urging the international community to speak out against the arrests of bloggers and "cyber-dissidents", Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said: "The Chinese government is stepping up its harassment of the remaining prominent dissidents and is trying to silence all of its critics.
"Since mid-February, the government has stepped up pressure on activists and rights defenders and in recent days the oppression has become more stifling," the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a statement on Ai's detention.
A frequent critic of China's Communist Party leaders, Ai has repeatedly run into problems with the authorities in the past.
He said in February that his first large solo exhibition in mainland China was cancelled after organisers said the timing was too politically sensitive.
And he was blocked from leaving China in December ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo for jailed Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.
Ai told AFP last week that he planned to set up a studio in Germany to show his work, explaining he was fed up with the hurdles of exhibiting in China.
© 2011 AFP