Amid official silence over the detention of maverick artist Ai Weiwei, a state-controlled newspaper launched a scathing attack on him yesterday, prompting fears from his mother and supporters that authorities are planning to prosecute him for his criticism of the government.
The editorial in the Global Times - published in both Chinese and English editions - was the strongest indication yet of the authorities' take on Ai, who has not been seen since Sunday, when border police stopped him boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong. His mobile phone remained off last night.
Ai, arguably China's most famous contemporary artist and co-designer of Beijing's iconic Olympic stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', has emerged in the past couple of years as a vociferous critic.
'Ai Weiwei does as he pleases and often does what others dare not,' the newspaper said. 'He himself probably realised that he was never far away from the red line of Chinese law. So long as Ai continued, it was possible that he would breach the line one day.'
His mother, 77-year-old writer Gao Ying, expressed worries yesterday about her 53-year-old son's fate. She earlier issued a handwritten note, later posted on the Net, appealing for news about her son.
'The [Global Times] is an official newspaper. From that we can glean the authorities' attitude,' said Gao, the wife of late patriotic poet Ai Qing. 'What do they mean by the red line? And how do they define the line? Are they using law as a yardstick, or is [official] power greater than the law?'
Ai's detention drew condemnation from the United States, France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, Australia and rights groups.
Amid a widening campaign against the country's rights lawyers, activists and reform-minded intellectuals following online calls for Middle Eastern-style 'jasmine revolution', many believed Ai would be spared because of his international fame. He is also respected at home because of his father.
But the Global Times said Beijing would not make concessions for people just because they were backed by the West. 'The law will not bend or make concessions for 'people with special status' just because of Western criticism,' it insisted.
Ai has long been a thorn in the side of authorities. He launched an independent investigation into the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, collecting details of 5,000 children killed when school buildings collapsed. He also joined a march against demolition of an arts hub, denounced the tainted- milk scandal and blogged about his anger at social injustice. 'Those are the kinds of things he dared do and others daren't,' his mother said.
Rights groups fear Ai's detention may lay the ground for a formal arrest, which is often followed by prosecution on the mainland. 'They may be setting up Ai Weiwei for criminal prosecution. If they lay this groundwork, and if they do prosecute him, it looks like he had it coming,' Joshua Rosenzweig, senior manager of research at Dui Hua, said.
The editorial suggested Ai was testing the limits of official tolerance, but it was often unclear where they were, Rosenzweig said. 'They talk about this legal red line ... but there really isn't a red line in terms of what's acceptable. The only way of knowing you've crossed it is when the authorities come and get you.'
Chinese Human Rights Defenders researcher Wang Songlian said the editorial was a 'very bad sign' for Ai.