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At first his prominence seemed to offer him a measure of protection that other activists didn't enjoy. Ai wasn't punished for publicly denouncing the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a propaganda display. But that illusion of safety disappeared in 2009, when he was assaulted by police officers in Chengdu while attempting to attend the trial of Tan Zuoren, an activist who helped tally the students who died in the earthquake. Ai later underwent cranial surgery in Munich to treat internal bleeding. The assault did little to thwart his willingness to vent criticisms. "Everybody has worries, but being scared will not help the situation," he told TIME last year. "More people need to speak out and participate so social change can be possible."
Now Ai's unrelenting activism has run up against a broad crackdown on dissent in China. After the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, an anonymous declaration on an overseas Chinese-language website pledged to follow them with protests in China. That would have been enough to trigger a crackdown, but there are other factors in play. The country's top leadership is due to change next year, and officials don't want to be seen as too lenient. Activists and lawyers are considered particularly at risk, says Eva Pils, an associate professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "There is a perception that these people are threatening," Pils says. "Over the past one or two years, the political faction within the leadership that wants to deal with [them] in a very repressive way has won out."
China has seen plenty of politically tense periods in recent years, such as the 20th anniversary in 2009 of the Tiananmen massacre or the months after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But the current crackdown is particularly worrisome, says Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, because its targets include people who avoided calls for outright political change and were generally more tolerated in the past. "They're not outright political activists," Xia says. "The detained and disappeared are artists, civil-society activists and citizens who are drawing attention to social and economic issues." Since mid-February, security services across the country have put at least 200 activists under some sort of detention or house arrest and formally arrested 26 people, while 30 others, including seven lawyers, have disappeared into police custody, according to Xia.
Ai was one of the last to be grabbed. He was stopped with an assistant while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed four days later that he is suspected of unspecified "economic crimes" (which often means tax evasion). Little else has been made public. "It's hard for us to tell what's happening," says Jennifer Ng, the assistant who was with Ai when he was detained. Ng was allowed to fly to Hong Kong. Ai's mother Gao Ying says the family has received no notice of his detention. "How could a mother not be worried?" she says. "We want to go to the authorities, but we don't even know where he is."
It's possible that the authorities are still deciding their next steps. "They may not actually know how they'll proceed with Ai's case," says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong based senior manager for the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights group. "One thing is certain: saying he's suspected of economic crimes is intended to defuse critics who'll want to frame this as a politically motivated prosecution." Investigators have sought to interview all of Ai's studio staff, and one associate, Wen Tao, also remains in custody.
Ai's detention has put a global spotlight on the current bout of repression. The U.S., the E.U., Australia, Britain, France and Germany have all raised his case, and outgoing U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman specifically cited him in a farewell speech in Shanghai. "As a result of this, people realize that China can make people suddenly disappear," says Alison Klayman, a journalist and filmmaker who is producing a documentary about the artist titled Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. "That is what he has talked about, and now people will get it."
It's an irony that Ai would appreciate: his criticisms of the Chinese state can be heard loudest now that he can't be heard at all.
This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.