Beijing: Chinese authorities have told the Australian embassy in Beijing that detained artist Guo Jian is being held due to a "visa-related matter", as consular officials work to gain access to the 52-year-old.
In a statement on Tuesday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the "initial advice from Chinese authorities is that Mr Guo was detained on a visa-related matter".
Australian embassy officials "were in contact" with Chinese authorities, the department said, and were "pursuing access to Mr Guo as soon as possible". Officials hoped to make a consular visit in the "coming days".
Mr Guo was taken on Sunday night from his studio in Songzhuang, on the eastern fringes of Beijing, by "seven or eight" uniformed policemen who arrived in two police cars, according to friend Dong Xiaoli. He has not been heard from since then.
It came a day after an extended interview he gave the Financial Times, in which he spoke at length about his experiences as a former soldier and a protester during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989.
The Chinese army was called in to break up the pro-democracy student demonstrations on June 4, 1989, with estimates of deaths ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.
"I didn't believe it, even though I had been a soldier," Mr Guo said in the interview. "In the army I had never seen that sort of violence. Then I saw the tracers and people falling around me – they were just gone. I suddenly realised, s---, this was war."
To privately commemorate the anniversary, the Chinese-born Australian had also just completed an installation which involved covering a diorama of Tiananmen Square with 160 kilograms of minced meat.
Friends of Mr Guo, who is popular among both contemporary Chinese art circles and the Australian expatriate community in Beijing, are concerned for his welfare.
"His work was just an expression of his feelings; he didn't plan for it to be displayed outside," close friend and artist Wu Yiqiang said. "China's history needs clarifying and restoration. It should let people make judgement by themselves instead of hiding. An artist shouldn't become the target of political persecution."
Mr Guo's art has been displayed at numerous important exhibitions in Australia, including at the National Gallery of Australia. Mr Guo has also appeared on ABC panel show Q&A, in an episode filmed in Shanghai on April, and on Two Men in China, another program aired last month on the national broadcaster.
"Guo Jian is and was one of a very important wave of emigre artists who focused the attention of international audiences on the art of China in the late 1990s in a very positive sense for that country," Evan Hughes, director of Ray Hughes Gallery said.
Mr Guo is among scores of activists, artists, journalists, lawyers and intellectuals rights groups say have been arrested, detained or "disappeared" in the lead-up to the sensitive June 4 anniversary, a highly taboo topic in mainland China. But the detention of a foreign national is unusual, and has the potential to strain bilateral ties.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on Tuesday expressed concern about the spate of detentions in China.
"I urge the Chinese authorities to immediately release those detained for the exercise of their human right to freedom of expression," the High Commissioner said.
"It is in the interests of everyone to finally establish the facts surrounding the Tiananmen Square incidents. China has made many advances over the past 25 years, particularly in the area of economic and social rights, as well as legal reforms. Learning from events of the past will not diminish the gains of the past 25 years, but will show how far China has come in ensuring that human rights are respected and protected."
Central Beijing remained under heavy security on Wednesday.
"The Chinese government long ago reached a conclusion about the political turmoil at the end of the 1980s," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing on Tuesday.
"In the last three decades and more of reform and opening up, China's enormous achievements in social and economic development have received worldwide attention. The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected."