Jailed Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo “Close to Death”

Warnings emerged on Thursday that Chinese democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate , who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion, is now close to death from his recently revealed liver cancer. From The Guardian’s Tom Phillips:

The dissident writer has been receiving treatment at a hospital in the north-eastern city of Shenyang where, according to one report, he has been separated from other patients and is guarded by plainclothes agents from China’s paramilitary armed police.

Writing on Twitter on Thursday, Ye Du, a dissident poet and family friend, said Liu’s condition had worsened and that relatives had been told he did not have much more time to live.

Citing medical staff and another family friend, the Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK reported that doctors had stopped giving Liu medication because he was too weak for treatment. He was also no longer able to eat. Yang Jianli, the friend, told RTHK Liu had developed a kidney problem as a result of the accumulation of fluid in his abdomen.

[…] For the Chinese government it represents a public relations disaster, coming on the eve of the summit in Hamburg. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, had hoped to use the two-day summit to bolster China’s case to be seen as a responsible and forward-looking world power. The state now faces international embarrassment and censure over its treatment of the 2010 Nobel peace prize winner. [Source]

Read more details on Liu’s reported condition from DPA. An apparently recent photo of an emaciated Liu Xiaobo with his wife also began circulating online on Thursday:

The warning of Liu’s imminent death follows a week of conflicting assessments of his condition. Besides citing legal restrictions on his travel, Chinese authorities have insisted that Liu is too sick to travel abroad for treatment in accordance with supporters’ demands and his own reported wishes. While some accounts from family members have concurred that Liu’s situation is grave and his time limited, others have denied that he was too unwell to be moved. Video footage of a doctor describing his condition as "acceptable," apparently released by authorities to defuse criticism, cast that claim in further doubt. The latest reports have not ended the contradictions, as Hong Kong Free Press’ notes:

[The] Hong Kong-based NGO the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said that a family member told them that Liu is not in immediate danger. The family member said that Liu’s two brothers will head to Shenyang – where Liu is being treated – to see him on Saturday.

The Centre speculated that claims of Liu being in danger would make G20 leaders reluctant to raise the call for Liu to leave the country for treatment. The NGO previously said that Liu was well enough to travel abroad for treatment. [Source]

In a statement calling for greater freedom for Liu and transparency in his treatment, activist Zeng Jinyan suggested that "many people have misread the situation":

The first thing I want to say is, I’ve been in direct contact with Liu Xia’s brother, Liu Hui, regarding Liu Xiaobo’s condition. Many people have misread the situation. To be specific, targeted therapy treatment is highly effective in some patients, and not necessarily so in others. A prognosis can be made approximately one month after treatment begins.

Liu Xiaobo’s situation, however, is not that optimistic, as “his condition is at the most critical stage, spreading its quickest, with no improvement after 2–3 weeks of treatment. The side effects have severely reduced his liver functions and abdominal fluid levels are also now serious, so anti-cancer drugs have been temporarily stopped mainly to preserve his liver, and give his body a chance to breath.” (Liu Hui, verbatim on the evening of July 6.)

[…] Under the circumstances, we have to keep our cool and do everything we can to put Liu Xiaobo’s interests first. [Source]

Whether this latest news offers embarrassment or relief for China at the summit, The Financial Times’ Tom Mitchell writes that the broader story of Liu’s illness has threatened to complicate Xi Jinping’s anticipated "easy ‘soft power’ victories" as he seeks to cement China’s standing as a leading global power.

[… N]ews that the country’s most famous political prisoner is gravely ill has thrown a spanner in the works, exposing the deep gulf that remains between Beijing and Berlin, while lingering trade and economic disputes continue to complicate Sino-EU relations.

“For Beijing the goal is to present itself as a generous, co-operative and friendly power,” says Sebastian Heilmann, president of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “However, the two countries continue to have completely different understandings of basic political order, rule of law and civil society.”

[…] In its attempt to contain the international outcry that followed [news of Liu’s illness], the Chinese government has veered between stern rhetoric — warning that Mr Liu was a “criminal” unworthy of international sympathy — and attempts to show he was being treated with compassion.

[…] Mr Liu’s illness is a reminder that while Beijing and Berlin will present a united front at the G20 summit when it comes to arguments with US president Donald Trump over “global commons” issues such as trade and climate change, Asia and Europe’s two largest economies have stark differences. [Source]

Writing at The Guardian last week, Natalie Nougayrède argued that protesters, as well as world leaders, should remember Liu:

Xi is coming to Europe and will appear before the world’s cameras at the first Trump-era G20. Now is the time for Europeans who care about the world they want to live in to show some solidarity on human rights – not just on climate and trade. Now is the time for some naming and shaming. If the Chinese leader gets through this summit without any pressure over Liu’s full freedom, the illiberal state model he promotes will only be strengthened. No one would stand to gain.

Targeting Trump in Hamburg is understandable, but we can confidently hope America’s democratic system will one day get the better of him. There are no such checks and balances in China, as Hong Kong dissidents well know. Chinese human rights activists have only their courage to count on, and the hope that the outside world, its citizens and its democratic governments, will somehow show support. [Source]

Despite a broad trend of international reluctance to criticize China on rights issues, pressure to let Liu seek treatment abroad has come from a wide range of governments, activists, and NGOs, including representatives of the United States, European Union., and United Nations. (Leaders in Norway, which suffered a deep freeze in relations with China after Liu’s Nobel award, have been conspicuously silent.) On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch urged further pressure on Xi Jinping from other attendees in Hamburg, while Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty appealed directly to Xi "to end this cruel farce […,] do the right thing and order his immediate release."

China has rebuffed these demands, its Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang telling reporters that "the relevant issue is an internal affair of China’s. I cannot see any need to discuss this with any other country." (Authorities have also moved to prevent discussion within China.) In an apparent concession on Wednesday, however, local authorities announced that American and German doctors would be invited to assist in Liu’s treatment. From Josh Chin at The Wall Street Journal:

Doctors recently told Mr. Liu’s family members the cancer was getting worse and that his condition was too delicate for him to be transported out of the country, said one of the Liu family’s lawyers, Shang Baojun, who welcomed the invitation to outside doctors. “At the very least, the foreign experts can determine whether his body is strong enough for him to travel abroad,” he said.

There were no details about which foreign experts had been contacted, whether any had agreed to help or what access they would get to Mr. Liu or his medical records.

The First Hospital of China Medical University in the northeastern city of Shenyang, where Mr. Liu is receiving treatment, said on Wednesday that it had invited “the most authoritative” experts in liver cancer from the U.S. and Germany to travel to China to assist local doctors. It said the decision was made “in accordance with the request of family members and the recommendation of experts from the team.”

[…] Chinese officials and Western diplomats in Beijing had discussed the possibility of inviting foreign doctors to treat Mr. Liu in China in meetings and phone calls over the past several days, a Western diplomat familiar with the discussions said.

“The concern is that the foreign medical experts will have to work through the Chinese team, so they might not get full access to all the information about his condition,” the diplomat said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.” [Source]

The promise received a qualified welcome from Liu’s supporters, as AFP’s Joanna Chiu reported:

"It seems that the Chinese authorities are responding to international pressure by making such arrangements," Amnesty International’s China researcher Patrick Poon told AFP.

But, Poon added, Liu and his wife, the poet Liu Xia, have made it clear that they want him to be treated abroad.

"The Chinese government should respect their wish but not just make arrangements to respond to concerns and criticisms," he said.

[…] Albert Ho, a former lawmaker in the semi-autonomous city, said the hospital’s decision to invite experts "shows that the Chinese government is quite concerned about its image that they would be subject to accusations that they had maltreated Liu Xiaobo".

But Ho said that it was not enough and that Liu should be allowed to have access to friends and "make a choice of his own as to whether or not he would like to seek medical treatment outside China". [Source]

Despite the promised involvement of foreign doctors, Liu and those connected with him remain under tight control. As Radio Free Asia reported on June 30:

Anyone trying to visit Liu is subjected to a rigorous identity check, and only one relative is allowed to visit at any given time, Yu Jie said, citing his own anonymous source.

Yu said healthcare workers at the hospital have also been ordered not to speak to anyone about Liu’s case, and are banned from carrying mobile phones into the ward where Liu is being treated, for fear that unauthorized photos or video footage will be leaked to the outside world.

[…] Police in Beijing have meanwhile place a number of Liu’s friends and fellow activists under close surveillance and house arrest in a bid to stop further information from getting out.

"It’s hard to say how many people are affected … but there are a few people I knew, including Shang Baojung, Xie Xiaoling, , , among others, who have received notifications from the state security police warning them not to write or otherwise comment publicly on Liu Xiaobo," a Beijing-based activist who asked to remain anonymous said on Friday. [Source]

U.S.-based activist Chen Guangcheng commented on Liu’s treatment in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, drawing attention to the sometimes fatal practice of using withheld or inappropriate medical treatment as an instrument of coercion and abuse.

[…] If Mr. Liu’s incarceration for “inciting subversion of state power” was appalling, the way China has handled Mr. Liu’s illness should give pause to any government or business seeking to form closer ties with Beijing.

[…] In serving out my sentence in prison — where , forced labor and inhumane conditions were the norm — I was occasionally brought to the medical wing for sham exams performed by a staff made up of convicts who had a smattering of experience in medicine or biology. I was never seen by a properly trained doctor, despite grave illness and serious injuries inflicted on me by other inmates on order of the wardens. Before I was released, I was given a “medical exam” during which they injected me with drugs that caused me to be unable to speak properly for many days.

[…] My case and Mr. Liu’s are fairly well known in the West, but there are many attorneys and activists in China who have endured horrific suffering. Such are routinely denied due process under the law and are forced to participate in show trials in which verdicts are predetermined by Communist Party insiders. Some don’t survive prison: Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, , Li Wangyang and Peng Ming-Min are among those who have died behind bars. Families of the victims will likely never get clear answers, as their loved ones’ organs are immediately removed and bodies cremated before independent autopsies can be performed.

For a nation with no rule of law, one of the main levers for influencing the status quo is outspoken condemnation from foreign governments and the public. Authoritarian regimes fear public shame, which is why it is time to shame China’s Communist Party for its brutal treatment of Mr. Liu and other champions of liberty currently being held by Beijing. [Source]

Chinese Human Rights Defenders has maintained a watch list of political cases involving medical concerns since 2014. University College Cork’s Jackie Sheehan cited CHRD’s work in a post at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute: Analysis blog, in which she highlighted other cases of withheld or inadequate treatment in contrast with the privileges enjoyed by even disgraced former officials:

Liu’s writings and activism have been part of a broad and long-running campaign in the PRC, taken up in various ways by different generations, to bring the ruling party under the control of the law and establish legal guarantees for the rights which all Chinese citizens have had on paper, in the Constitution, since the early 1950s. Without such checks and balances, how an individual is treated in China has depended on who they are, and “rights” have actually been privileges, to be granted or withheld at the whim of the leadership.

There could be no better illustration of this than the fact that Bo Xilai, only five years into his prison sentence for corruption and abuse of power on an epic scale, was revealed to be suffering from liver cancer in the same week that Liu Xiaobo’s condition became known. Bo’s cancer has been detected at an early stage and should be treatable, and even though the facilities at Qincheng No.1 Prison have been described by a Chinese academic as “excellent”, he has reportedly been moved to a hospital near Dalian.

And clearly, prisoners should be entitled to good-quality medical care and parole in the case of serious illness, regardless of what they have done. This is not an argument that Bo’s Chongqing torture spree in the service of his self-enriching crackdown on alleged organized crime should disqualify him from enjoying a prisoner’s basic rights. The point is that, because of his former CCP status, Bo has been given the consideration due to a prisoner found to be seriously ill, while Liu Xiaobo has only been admitted to a proper hospital when his cancer was already beyond treatment. [Source]

Read more on Liu and his plight from Jiayang Fan at The New Yorker, Wu Qiang at China Change, Geremie Barmé at China Heritage, and CDT.