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Chinese police detain dissident artist Ai Weiwei at airport

Ai Weiwei, China's most controversial artist, was detained by police as he boarded a flight at Beijing airport yesterday, the highest-profile action yet in a clampdown on dissenting voices.

It has long been a question of when, not if, the authorities would haul in the 53-year-old artist, who is outspoken in his criticism of the ruling Communist Party. The Chinese government has arrested dozens of lawyers and writers since February in an attempt to stop protests similar to those seen in the Middle East and North Africa.

In an interview with Germany's ARD radio on Wednesday Mr Ai said: "Every day many people ask me on Twitter: 'How come they still have not come to you yet?' I don't know. But I think the possibility is high." Mr Ai, who has used his Twitter page to keep an informal tally of those arrested, was attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong when he was led off by two officials. One told Mr Ai's travelling companion that the artist had "other business" and could not board the plane.

Police also detained eight of Mr Ai's staff, according to updates posted by his associates on his Twitter feed, and surrounded his studio in Beijing's Chuangyi art district, which is also his home. Mr Ai was involved in the construction of the Olympic stadium but later disowned his contribution.

A stocky figure with a straggly beard, he is known for his humour, although his art is steeped in politics and sombre in tone. He gained attention in Britain with the recent Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern.

His disdain for China's Communist Party is powerful, and he has repeatedly accused the government of not respecting the constitution and for human rights abuses, saying it was riddled with corruption and run by people "acting like the mafia".

With 70,000 followers, Mr Ai is a Twitter star in a country that bans the social network. He is also a cultural blue-blood, the son of the poet Ai Qing, who was denounced during the Cultural Revolution.

For long it appeared that his status had protected him from suffering the fate of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate imprisoned for 11 years for subversion. In December Mr Ai was prevented from leaving the country, as authorities feared he was trying to attend the Nobel peace prize ceremony in Oslo.

In January, his studio in Shanghai was demolished. In 2009, police burst in to his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him so badly that surgeons in Munich later had to drill two holes in his head to remove fluid from his skull. His phone has been tapped for years and he and his associates are under constant surveillance.