Liu Xia is free at last but her brother is a hostage

July 26, 2018 08:30
Liu Xia has remained largely silent In the two weeks since her arrival in Germany. Photo: Reuters

Finally, after frantic appeals from around the world and much suspense, the Chinese Communist Party has agreed to let Liu Xia, the 57-year-old widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, leave the country and go to Europe.

Liu Xia, painter, poet and photographer, arrived in Berlin exactly three days before the anniversary of the death of her husband from lung cancer while serving the eighth year of an 11-year prison sentence for drafting a petition calling for democracy and human rights in China.

Liu Xia had never been charged with any crime but she lost her freedom when her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu Xia’s unofficial, and illegal, house arrest lasted for eight years.

While on his deathbed, Liu Xiaobo appealed, in vain, for his wife and her brother, Liu Hui, to be allowed to accompany him to Germany for medical treatment. He knew that his wife would be reluctant to leave her brother behind. As long as Liu Hui was in China, the Chinese government had her on a leash.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves much credit for bringing about the release of Liu Xia. She spoke to President Xi Jinping about it during her May visit to China. By then, the widowed poet was on the verge of despair, telling friends “there’s nothing in the world for me now; it’s easier to die than live”.

As it is, Liu Xia’s release occurred almost exactly a year after her husband’s death. She arrived in Germany on July 10, three days before a memorial for Liu Xiaobo held at the Gethsemane Church in Berlin. While hundreds of supporters, including many influential German figures, took part, Liu Xia did not attend. The reason was clear: The Chinese authorities held her brother as a hostage in Beijing.

Liu Xia herself, in an extraordinary meeting with a reporter the day before her departure, made the situation clear. The AFP reporter, Rebecca Davis, posted the conversation on Twitter.

Calling the whole experience surreal, she described how she saw two plainclothes men lying on “makeshift beds in the narrow entry” to Liu Xia’s home. They didn’t stop her and her companion. Perhaps they knew that Liu Xia would be leaving China.

But Davis, not knowing that Liu Xia was leaving the next day, asked if she had any message for the outside world. “She said she couldn’t speak to reporters out of fear for her brother,” Davis reported.

In the two weeks since her arrival in Germany, she has remained quiet. She has also let it be known that she would not go to Oslo to claim the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her husband – a move that would infuriate Beijing, with probable negative consequences for her brother.

But a picture is worth a thousand words. When Liu Xia stepped off the Finnair jetliner in Helsinki to transfer to a flight to Berlin, someone snapped a photo of her. The radiance of her smile upon arrival in a free country said everything that needed to be said.

Merkel, while in China, also met wives of two imprisoned human rights lawyers. The women were Li Wenzu, wife of Wang Quanzhang, and Xu Yan, wife of Yu Wensheng. Wang was one of more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists swept up by police on 9 July 2015 in what is now called the 709 crackdown. He was indicted in February 2017 for “subversion of state power” but, to date, no member of the family has been allowed to visit him or even to see a copy of the indictment.

Yu, one of the country’s most outspoken human rights lawyers, was picked up in January while walking his son to school. He has been charged with “inciting subversion of state power”.

Li Wenzu has had no contact with her husband for three years. However, on July 18, a lawyer, Liu Weiguo, told her that he had met her husband, who had appointed him to represent him in court. He also told her that her husband was taking pills for blood pressure problems. He used to be in excellent health, taking cold showers in the winter, she said, but she was relieved that at least he was alive.

China’s human rights problems extend well beyond human rights lawyers. The systematic mistreatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, including the incarceration of a substantial proportion of the population in so-called re-education camps, has caused great resentment on the part of these Muslims, and such sentiments may well spread globally, with Islam being the most rapidly growing religion in the world.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.