Chinese artist Ai Weiwei blocked from leaving China

BEIJING, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said he was prevented from leaving the country Thursday just 30 minutes before boarding a plane to South Korea, ahead of next week's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Ai, 53, one of China's most famous and controversial artists, had cleared customs and was waiting for his plane at Beijing airport when two border control policemen came over and told him he could not leave.

"They showed me a note from the Public Security Bureau, which said my leaving China could harm national security," he told AFP by phone, adding he thought police had been alerted by Twitter feeds saying he had cleared customs.

Ai said he believed the restriction was linked to the Nobel ceremony due to take place on December 10 in Oslo -- a sensitive event for China after jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the peace prize.

Scores of activists and lawyers have been prevented from leaving China in recent weeks in what is widely seen as a crackdown linked to the prize, which has angered the government.

Liu, who is serving 11 years for subversion after co-authoring a petition calling for democratic reform, and members of his family are not expected to be able to attend the ceremony. His wife, Liu Xia, is currently under house arrest.

Ai, who is also an outspoken critic of the country's Communist leaders, was going to South Korea, and was then due to travel to Germany, Ukraine and Denmark. He said he never had plans to go to Oslo.

"I asked them how long these restrictions would last but they couldn't tell me," he said.

This is not the first time that the artist has landed in hot water. Last month, he was put under brief house arrest to prevent him from attending an event at his Shanghai studio set for demolition.

He also said he was detained and beaten by police who blocked him from testifying on the behalf of quake activist Tan Zuoren in the southwestern province of Sichuan last year. Tan was later handed a five-year jail term.