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Ai detention 'for economic crimes'

China has confirmed it has detained a renowned artist who had been missing for four days, but insisted his case involves economic crimes and not human rights.

Ai Weiwei, an internationally famed avant-garde artist who is also an outspoken critic of the government, was last seen early on Sunday in police custody after he was barred from boarding a flight to Hong Kong at a Beijing airport.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said police were investigating Ai for unspecified economic crimes. "It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression," Mr Hong said.

"The public security authorities are conducting an investigation according to law. China is a country under the rule of law and relevant authorities will work according to law," he said, giving no other details.

Chinese authorities sometimes try to silence critics by accusing them of tax violations or other non-political crimes. Beijing police refused to comment on Ai's case.

Ai is among China's best-known artists internationally and recently exhibited at the Tate Modern gallery in London.

He is the most prominent target so far in China's massive crackdown on dozens of lawyers, writers and activists following online calls for protests similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa. No protests have occurred yet.

Several countries, including the US, Britain, and Germany, have raised concerns about his detention, but Mr Hong dismissed their remarks, saying, "Other countries have no right to interfere."

Ai has had past run-ins with authorities, in particular for supporting victims of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but his wife said the current situation is worse. His detention has sent a chill through the activist community and prompted many to call for his release online through Twitter messages or blog postings.

In previous cases involving economic crimes that others saw as political persecution, Zhao Yan, a news assistant for the New York Times, was jailed for three years in 2007 on charges of financial fraud. Xu Zhiyong, an outspoken lawyer, was investigated for alleged tax evasion in 2009 but later released.

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