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A French-Chinese artist tribute to late Chinese dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo survived the first day of a public exhibition in Shenzhen; many would say miraculously.

The miracle proved short-lived, however. By nightfall, authorities had covered the work with a promotional banner. An organiser told the South China Morning Postpolice were investigating the case as there were “political problems” with the artwork.

The artist Hu Jiamin and his wife, who said they were French nationals, were seen being taken away by plain clothes police on Friday night from the event, the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported. It remained unknown if the couple were still under detention.

An empty blue chair and a row of red iron bars amid an idyllic traditional Chinese landscape were among the images Hu Jiamin had painted at the centre of his triptych mural that was on display at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism Architecture which opened on Friday.

Those details were highly symbolic. Liu, who had dedicated his life to advocating democracy in China, was behind bars in December 2010 when his Nobel Peace Prize was quietly placed on the seat of an empty, blue chair at the Oslo ceremony. Liu died of liver cancer in state custody in July.

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“I have been very upset since I heard about Liu’s passing away,” Hu told the Post on Friday. “I’ve always wanted to do something but it seemed like there was nothing I could do, particularly because I’m deeply disappointed by the way China has gone these past years.”

He was referring to the government’s increasing control over most aspects of life in China, he explained.

Hu and his wife, a French national, had flown to Shenzhen from Lyon, where they now live. The couple moved to the city in late 2015, after getting fed up with the tightening political control in Beijing, where they had lived for three years.

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