The Public Security Ministry said the dissident's female secretary, Tong Yi, was 'being investigated for matters that violated the laws of China'. Mr Wei's sister, Wei Ling, said police had told her father the activist would be held 'for a time'. Ms Wei said police raided her brother's office on Monday, presumably seeking evidence against him.
China's apparent attempt to build a case against Mr Wei is likely to fuel the debate in Washington over renewing trade concessions worth billions of dollars to Peking. President Clinton, who has to decide by early June whether to renew China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trade privileges, has demanded 'overall, significant progress' on human rights.
The State Department spokesman, Mike McCurry, said of the arrest: 'The United States very much regrets that China has taken this step.' American diplomats in Peking held a meeting with Chinese officials 'in which we expressed our concern' about Mr Wei, but stopped short of a formal protest.
Mr McCurry said China appeared to be silencing a citizen merely for his views, but Peking retorted: 'The Public Security Department has the right to interrogate him according to the law, and this is purely China's internal affair.'
There is no doubt that the administration feels cornered by its own rhetoric over China. During the campaign, Mr Clinton was scathing about President Bush's tolerance towards repression in Peking, but at the same time he said that his administration would orientate its foreign policy towards expanding opportunities for US trade.
During Mr Clinton's meeting with Chinese leaders in Seattle last year and, more disastrously, during the visit by the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to Peking last month, the two contradictory objectives of US policy came into conflict. Whatever he decides about MFN, Mr Clinton will have to eat some of his words.
His dilemma has worsened in the last month. The growing confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear programme requires good relations with China. Economic sanctions will only be taken seriously if they are not resisted by China, the North's largest trade partner and oil supplier.
With Wall Street looking nervous, the administration does not want to provide bad economic news in the shape of a row with either China or Japan, which might be the occasion for a fresh fall in the stock market. Although US exports to China are only dollars 9bn ( pounds 6.3bn), compared to dollars 23bn in imports, US business would be upset to be cut out of such a large, fast-expanding market.
The French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, arrives in China today to heal a rift between the two countries over the sale of French warplanes to Taiwan. A source in his office said Mr Balladur would 'speak in the clearest manner about our views' on human rights when he meets the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng.Reuse content