BEIJING – Red-eyed and tense, the usually uninhibited and irreverent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei seemed a different man in custody as he sat for what his wife says was a brief, monitored meeting — his first contact with the outside world in 43 days.
Authorities have still not detailed why the avant-garde artist and government critic was detained April 3 and held incommunicado, in a case that has prompted an outcry in the art world and among U.S. and EU officials, who have called it a sign of China's deteriorating human rights.
The burly, bearded 53-year-old appeared conflicted and his eyes were puffy when his wife Lu Qing was allowed to visit him Sunday, though he seemed healthy, Lu told The Associated Press.
"He has changed. His mood and demeanor are so different from the simple and spontaneous Ai Weiwei I know," Lu said Monday. "It was obvious that without freedom to express himself he was not behaving naturally even with me."
Lu said she sat face to face with her husband during the meeting in a room at an unknown location and that they were watched by someone "who seemed to be in charge of Ai," and another who took notes. Ai repeatedly assured her he was physically OK: "My health is good. I am fine, don't worry."
Family visits are rarely allowed for suspects under criminal investigation until after they are formally charged.
The Foreign Ministry has said Ai is being investigated for economic crimes, but his detention comes amid a crackdown on dissent apparently sparked by fears that uprisings like those in the Arab world could erupt in China. Ai had been keeping an informal tally on Twitter of the dozens of bloggers, writers and other intellectuals who were detained or arrested in the campaign before he was taken away.
Ai is famous in artistic circles for performance pieces that explore the dizzying changes happening in contemporary China and for irreverent works such as a photo series that shows him giving the middle finger to landmarks such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the White House in Washington.
He is known more popularly as one of the designers of the iconic "Bird's Nest" national stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and, in recent years, has emerged as an advocate for victims of social injustice.
Lu said that during the brief meeting Ai was not handcuffed and was wearing his own clothes instead of a detention center uniform. His trademark beard had not been shaven. Still, he "seemed conflicted, contained, his face was tense."
Lu said the people who arranged the visit, who showed her no identification, made it clear that the scope of her questions had to be kept very narrow.
"We could not talk about the economic charges or other stuff, mainly about the family and health," she said. "We were careful, we knew that the deal could be broken at any moment, so we were careful."
Ai suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. He told his wife that he takes long walks everyday, has his blood pressure checked seven times a day, and that he eats and sleeps very well.
Despite the visit, much about Ai's case remains murky.
Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer and friend of Ai's who met with Lu on Monday to discuss the visit, said it sounded like Ai was being held under residential surveillance somewhere outside Beijing.
Chinese law allows police to impose residential surveillance for up to six months before requiring them to make a decision about how to proceed with a case, as opposed to the 30 days allowed for criminal detention, said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based research manager for the U.S. human rights group Dui Hua Foundation.
Such surveillance usually takes place at the suspect's home and is "supposed to be a less restrictive measure than detention," Rosenzweig said in an e-mail. "Instead, the police seem to be using residential surveillance as a way to legitimize extended, incommunicado detention outside of a regular detention facility."
Ai's elder sister Gao Ge said that her family is relieved to know that Ai is well but hopes the government can clarify what is going on with his case.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and officials from the European Union and elsewhere have called on China to release Ai and criticized Beijing for what they say is backsliding on human rights.
Ai's influence has ranged far beyond that of the usual contemporary artist. His outrage at the deaths of so many students in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 turned him into a social activist and tapped into anger among many Chinese at official corruption and indifference. He took to Twitter, prolifically tweeting not only his social criticism but his everyday doings, attracting more than 70,000 followers, even though Twitter is blocked by China's Internet filtering.
Since his disappearance, art museums such as the Tate in London, collectors and artists have rallied behind him. At the launch of an exhibition of Ai's sculpture earlier this month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said fearlessness in the face of official intimidation spoke to "the indomitable desire for freedom that is inside every human being."