BEIJING – The release of the Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo’s widow from eight years of house arrest this week brought some comfort to China’s activists. But the rare triumph for human rights in China was short-lived: Her brother was forced to stay behind, ensuring Liu Xia stayed silent on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death Friday.
Memorials are planned in Hong Kong and Berlin, where Liu Xia landed this week after years of international calls to free her from the isolation China imposed to quell any encouragement Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel might have had on human rights activists.
But the apolitical poet and artist Liu Xia herself will be noticeably absent.
Tienchi Martin-Liao, a Chinese-born writer based in Germany and friend of the couple, said Liu cannot meet with the public or speak to the media for “reasons that have nothing to do with her health.”
“She wants to join, but she cannot,” Martin-Liao said Friday by phone.
Rights groups have said Liu will feel pressured to remain silent as long as her brother Liu Hui remains in China. Liu Xia was never charged with a crime and is seen worldwide as a tragic victim of her love for an enemy of the Chinese state.
Martin-Liao said Liu Xia’s psychological condition has greatly improved since she arrived in Berlin, but they are awaiting medical consultations before changing drugs given to her by Chinese state security agents during her house arrest.
Despite the constraints on the widow and concerns about her health, Martin-Liao struck an optimistic note.
“But on the whole, she’s in really good spirits,” Martin-Liao said. “You’ve seen the pictures: She is like a small bird that has flown out.”
Back in Beijing, government critics reflecting on the anniversary said that Liu Xia’s release did little to change the reality that the harshest crackdown on civil liberties in decades was continuing unabated. On Wednesday, a veteran pro-democracy campaigner was sentenced to 13 years in prison for “subversion” — a similar charge to Liu Xiaobo’s.
“They say that China has entered a new era, and indeed that is the case,” said Bao Tong, a former high-ranking Communist Party official and friend of the couple. “China is now in an era of rights defense. So long as you are living as a Chinese citizen, you are in a constant state of defending your rights, because your rights are in a constant state of being infringed upon.”
The administration of President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has led a widespread crackdown on civil society, targeting human rights lawyers and other independent groups considered a threat to the ruling party.
Liu Xiaobo was serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” when he died of liver cancer last summer. He helped write Charter 08, a manifesto calling for political and economic liberalization.
In 2010, while Liu was in prison, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. China was outraged and denounced the Nobel committee as celebrating a criminal. Liu Xia was put under house arrest, with guards at her apartment building keeping away friends and journalists, soon after she returned from telling him in prison that he had been awarded the prize.