Chinese artist Ai Weiwei prevented from leaving country

Tate Modern artist stopped from leaving China minutes before boarding plane 'in interests of national security'

China's best-known artist Ai Weiweihas been stopped from leaving the country minutes before he was to board his plane, he told the Guardian.

The outspoken artist, who created Tate Modern's current Sunflower Seeds installation, said officials warned he might harm national security. He believes police were worried he would go to next Friday's Nobel peace prize ceremony for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo , although he had already told them he would not attend.

Activists, friends and supporters of the imprisoned writer have been put under house arrest or increased surveillance or prevented from travelling abroad since the announcement of the award. Ai was waiting at the boarding gate, intending to catch a flight to Seoul today , when a border official told him there had been a "technical problem" and she needed to see his passport, he said.

"I said: 'Please tell me the truth – you are preventing me from going abroad.' She laughed and said 'Yes'," he added.

"They gave me a written note saying my acts might affect national security so they were stopping me from going out.

"It was definitely about this ceremony next week. I had already explained I was busy and was not interested in attending, but of course they wouldn't listen. I think they have become not trusting of anyone." Ai has frequently fallen foul of the authorities for his public criticism of the government and political activism. Last month he was placed under house arrest after planning a mass party to mark the forced demolition of his studio in Shanghai. He said he had been planning to visit several countries, going to Korea to plan for a biennale that he will be directing before flying to Berlin for a meeting and on to Denmark to see the location for a show.

"So they saved me a lot of trouble," he added.

"I don't feel angry at all. I am long, long past that stage … In every case there is no reason, no negotiation, no discussion – they simply give orders."

He said: "I very much predicted something like that would happen, but you cannot accuse people until it happens. When I passed [immigration] controls I thought it was strange; there are so many scholars and lawyers who have been stopped."

Liu Xiaobo's wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since the prize was announced, invited 140 Chinese citizens to collect the prize in her place. But so far only one – Wan Yanhai, an Aids activist living in exile in the US –has said he will attend. Many more have had their movements restricted.

Beijing is furious at the Nobel committee's decision to give the award to Liu, who is serving an 11-year sentence for incitement to subversion for co-authoring Charter 08, an appeal for democratic reforms.

Today foreign ministry spokesman Jiang Yu told a regular press briefing: "The Norwegian government expressed their open support [for the prize]. It is difficult to maintain friendly relations with Norway as in the past."

A Nobel official announced last month that the prize would probably not be handed out at the ceremony because China was unlikely to let any of Liu's close relatives attend.

It is thought that it would be the first time the prize had not been presented since 1936, when journalist Carl von Ossietzky was stopped from leaving Nazi Germany to accept it.

When Aung San Suu Kyi won while under house arrest, her husband and sons collected the prize on her behalf.


Tania Branigan in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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