“China is a country ruled by law and will act according to law,” said Hong Lei, the foreign ministry spokesman, at a regularly scheduled press briefing. “We hope that the countries concerned will respect China’s decision.”
“This has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression,” Hong said, adding: “Other countries have no right to interfere.”
Reporters pressed the spokesman several times for more details on Ai’s detention, but he refused to say more. Hours later, in an odd development, the foreign ministry issued an official transcript of the Thursday briefing that deleted all the questions and answers about Ai. Typically, the briefing transcripts appear on the ministry Web site unaltered.
Xinhua, the state-run news agency, issued a brief, one-line report late Wednesday saying Ai was suspected of economic crimes. But that posting, too, was soon redacted from the Xinhua Web site. Some Internet users took a screen shot of the original Xinhua post before it was erased and displayed it on their Twitter accounts.
During the foreign ministry briefing, Hong did not elaborate on the charges against Ai. Chinese authorities sometimes use “economic crimes,” and specifically tax evasion charges, to try to silence dissenters.
Ai, a conceptual artist whose work has been displayed around the world, is the most prominent figure arrested so far in a sweeping security crackdown in China that has netted dozens of human rights lawyers, activists, writers and bloggers. The U.S. State Department, the European Union and various human rights groups have called for the release of Ai and all the detainees.
The Chinese media have been largely silent about Ai’s disappearance. But the nationalist tabloid, Global Times, which is owned by the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily, ran a second, blistering editorial Thursday under the headline “Western critics will not change China.”
The editorial said China needed to control “people like” Ai to maintain social stability, and said “the goal of Western criticism of China’s human rights is to disrupt China politically.”
Since populist street uprisings this year began rattling authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, China’s communist rulers have become nervous about the unrest spreading here.
The authorities have responded with dual approach — a heavy-handed security clampdown on the one hand, including the detentions of activists and new restrictions on foreign journalists; and promises, on the other hand, to address the grievances of ordinary Chinese, like soaring housing prices and high-level corruption among the ruling elite.