This week brought both the first anniversary of the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, and the sudden release from house arrest of his widow, Liu Xia. If the latter was in part a coalition-building maneuver by China in its mounting trade conflict with the United States, it was also the product of concerted popular and political pressure, most notably from the German government. At Foreign Policy, Amnesty International’s Patrick Poon argues that Liu’s release "shows China is not impervious to public and diplomatic pressure," and offers a "glimmer of light as we look to secure freedom for other peaceful activists unjustly imprisoned in China."
The timing of Liu’s release is significant, coming just days before the first anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death, when calls for her release were set to crescendo. Her release also coincided with a series of significant diplomatic talks. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was in Germany, the human rights dialogue between China and the European Union took place earlier this week, and the EU-China Summit starts on Monday.
Behind the scenes, foreign diplomats and other officials had been pushing for her case to be on the agenda at these talks. This undoubtedly contributed to the mounting pressure to secure her release.
Some, then, might consider this to be a success of “quiet diplomacy.” But if so, the conditions for this success were created by public, sustained, and vocal pressure, including campaigns from Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations. Without such pressure, kept up over years, it is hard to imagine the demand for Liu Xia to leave China remaining on the diplomatic agenda for so long. This two-pronged approach, involving years of diplomatic and public pressure, was crucial to achieving Liu’s release.
Germany’s role in the negotiations should also not be understated. China is as skilled as any state in diplomatic horse-trading. The diplomatic push was more powerful for being spearheaded by Germany, a strategic trade partner that has also been consistent in bringing up human rights issues vis-à-vis China. [Source]
We've been here time and time again. While "quiet diplomacy" may have its place when it comes to getting China to do certain things on human rights, it usually succeeds only when there are others outside making lots and lots of noise. https://t.co/3BlbNiM7L3
— Joshua Rosenzweig (@siweiluozi) July 13, 2018
Poon also noted the limits of Liu’s new freedom, including fears that her brother, still in China, "will be used as leverage to keep Liu Xia from speaking out in the future." This danger appears already to have materialized, with concern for Liu Hui’s safety reportedly preventing her from attending a memorial service for her husband in Berlin on Friday. From Kris Cheng at Hong Kong Free Press:
[Liao Tianqi, a friend and the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre] made reference to Liu Hui: “If necessary, the Chinese government can put him in prison anytime. I believe he is the closest person to Liu Xia, so she has a lot of consideration about this.”
“If she attends, there will be some bad consequences that she does not want to see,” Liao said. “She said she was very sorry, but she cannot. Because this was not a decision that she could make. She cannot attend.”
Liao also said Liu Xia will not meet with the press in the short term, and will not go to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her late husband.
AFP’s Rebecca Davis, who managed to visit Liu Xia in Beijing the day before her apparently unexpected departure, noted in an emotional account of the visit on Twitter that Liu had said "she couldn’t speak to reporters out of fear for her brother."
11. We stood a long minute in silence before a big unfinished painting: a white canvas she’d half filled w rows of numbers: 20170713, 20170713… the day LXB died. She squeezed my hand hard, & I squeezed back. No need for words.
— Rebecca Davis (@rebeccaludavis) July 13, 2018
Meanwhile, authorities have exerted more direct pressure on attempted commemorations of Liu Xiaobo within China. From Reuters:
Supporters of Liu and his widow, Liu Xia, in China said they had been unable to organize any large event to mark the day and some have been “vacationed” by the authorities, a common practice where security agents take prominent dissidents away from cities during sensitive events to keep them quiet.
Hu Jia, a Beijing-based dissident who knew Liu Xiaobo, told Reuters on Sunday that he was going to be taken to Chongli, four hours outside of Beijing.
“They said I could not go near the sea,” he said. Liu Xiaobo was given an ocean burial, which prompted activists to flock to their nearest sea-shore to stage protests.
Three other friends or supporters of Liu, who declined to be named, told Reuters that they had been contacted by the authorities and told not to host memorial events or protests to mark the date. [Source]
Radio Free Asia spoke to other China-based activists about official efforts to prevent seaside commemorations:
Beijing-based veteran political activist He Depu said the state security police have been watching his home since July 2.
"They are outside right now," He said. "I’m allowed to go out, but then they follow me," he said. "They even follow me when I go to buy groceries, and stick to me like glue."
"So there’s no way I will be able to take part in any mourning activities for Liu Xiaobo," He said. "Everyone mourns his passing, but we have no way to organize; it’s a great shame."
[…] Sichuan-based rights activist Wei Xiaobing, who is currently working in Guangzhou, said he had received a phone call from the authorities in recent days, asking him to leave the city over the anniversary.
"They said very clearly that they wanted me to leave Guangdong province," Wei told RFA. "The main reason was the seashore memorials last year; they were afraid of trouble."
"Things are pretty tense, for them to send me back here ahead of time, and they have put pressure on my family, too," he said. [Source]
Commemorations did take place in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as in Berlin. At the latter, Ian Johnson read a eulogy adapted from an essay he had written for the New York Review of Books last year. From a transcript at ChinaFile:
[…] The significance of Liu is of a forerunner who points to looming problems. It isn’t that his death will galvanize the opposition, or other such romantic fantasies. Instead, he matters because his life, his critique, and his death are becoming part of public memory. Thanks to censorship, most people of course don’t know about him, but in the long run the efforts of people like him matter.
This isn’t a romantic fantasy but a realistic appraisal of how public memory works in any country, but especially in China. Throughout China’s long history, free-thinking people—from its greatest sage, Confucius, to its first and greatest historian, Sima Qian—were ignored or persecuted in their own time only to be recognized by history.
This is in fact how history in China has always been written. Time and again, people who spoke the truth have been banished, executed, or in some way silenced. They are beaten down but they keep coming back—a continuous struggle against the emperors. They stand up and are beaten down. Yet they continue to struggle.
And one day, as always happens—maybe only in several decades—those who struggle for the truth and dignity will win and history will be written. [Source]
CDT founder Xiao Qiang expressed similar confidence in an op-ed at CNN last year:
On Thursday, if a foreign reporter in a metropolitan Chinese city or a busy small town held up a microphone to ask a pedestrian about the death of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned, I would not be shocked if the response was: "Who? I have never heard of him!"
But I am not concerned. Liu Xiaobo will be remembered by this hypothetical pedestrian’s children, grandchildren, and grandchildren’s grandchildren. They may not even know their own ancestors’ names, but they will surely know Liu Xiaobo’s.
[…] Someday, Liu’s name will grace a national monument of a democratic China, for transcending fear with love in advance of human dignity. One day, when nations become obsolete concepts and "national monuments" disappear from the earth, the name Liu Xiaobo, together with those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, will still be as bright as the brightest stars in the night sky, inspiring the ever-enduring enterprises of human freedom and dignity.
Meanwhile, the names of those who imprisoned him and hastened his death, together with the name of their brutal, and brief, authoritarian regime, will be a mere footnote under Liu Xiaobo’s page in the history books. [Source]