Liu Xia left Beijing for Berlin on Tuesday morning, ending the years of extralegal house arrest that followed her husband Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize award in 2010. She is said to be physically frail but in good spirits, in contrast with her reported despair earlier this year. She may attend a memorial for her husband to be held in Berlin on the anniversary of his death on Friday.
Liu’s sudden release followed a series of disappointments over the year since his death, as Chinese authorities rebuffed successive waves of international pressure, most notably from the German government. It coincided with a visit to Germany by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and came in the few days between a rights dialogue and an annual summit between China and the European Union. CDT Chinese editors note that sympathetic Weibo users have been offering thanks and praise to German leader Angela Merkel in an effort to avoid censorship of overt celebrations, while others have used the English word "freedom" or the Chinese 遗孀 (yíshuāng, or "widow") for the same purpose. Jane Perlez and Ian Johnson examined Merkel’s role at The New York Times:
The decision by the Chinese government to release Ms. Liu days before the anniversary of her husband’s death sprung from the passionate interest in her fate by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who requested Ms. Liu’s release during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, an unusual move by a Western leader.
That request coincided with China’s realization that Ms. Liu, a talisman of international human rights groups, had become a liability just as China’s image was taking a battering in the United States and Europe over what are considered predatory economic policies and increasingly authoritarian rule.
Beijing calculated, diplomats said, that events planned in Germany on Friday to commemorate Mr. Liu’s death risked turning starkly negative if Ms. Liu were still under house arrest in Beijing, unable to talk to anyone but a few people, and forbidden to move freely beyond her apartment building.
A year ago, after the death of Mr. Liu, China felt it need not worry about friends, not even Germany, the heavyweight of Europe, said Volker Stanzel, a former German ambassador to China.
“That was a time when China felt it was riding high,” Mr. Stanzel said. “Now China is feeling headwinds.”
[…] “Others don’t do this,” Mr. Stanzel said, of Ms. Merkel’s push on human rights. “The British are desperate for a trade deal; President Macron of France is new; Trump uninterested.” [Source]
South China Morning Post’s Sarah Zheng and Keegan Elmer reported further analysis of the context of Liu’s release:
“This looks like a big gesture – a kind of offer – by the Chinese government … This looks like recognition from the Chinese government saying ‘we need you Germany, now, as a partner in Europe’,” [MERICS’ Kristin] Shi-Kupfer said. “The human rights situation in China has been deteriorating in recent years, so this stands out as something special.”
Insa Ewert, research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, said it was a long-term process to secure Liu’s release and there were signs after Merkel’s previous trip to Beijing that China might have been moving her case along.
“The timing of the release is certainly not coincidental with Beijing asking Europe to unite against the US in the trade conflict, and in light of the upcoming EU-China summit in Beijing next week,” she said.
But Katrin Kinzelbach, associate director of Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, said that even if Liu had not been released, China and Germany would still have reached their trade and investment deals.
“Human rights concerns remain an irritant in the relationship, that is true, but I am pretty sure that all of the agreements and announcements that resulted from the intergovernmental consultations would also have been made if Liu Xia had not been released,” she said. [Source]
Chinese Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying told reporters that Liu had been released for medical reasons, denying any connection with German diplomacy, and urging Hong Kong reporters to "broaden their horizons" instead of focusing on the story. Hua reportedly apologized to Chinese visitors to the press briefing for the "sensitive questions" they had heard. Readers of the ministry’s official transcript risk no such exposure: any mention of Liu Xia has been omitted.
The release may have come as a surprise to Liu herself despite her notification last week, according to the AFP’s Becky Davis, who had managed to visit her in Beijing the previous day:
AFP on Monday evaded tight security to gain rare access to the fifth-floor duplex apartment where the poet has been held under de facto house arrest since her dissident husband Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
No bags or boxes had been packed in her wood-panelled, booklined home.
[…] The 57-year-old gave no indication she knew anything of her imminent trip and declined to give a formal interview, citing fears for the safety of her younger brother.
[…] Liao [Yiwu, a Berlin-based friend] explained that Liu had her hopes of leaving raised and dashed repeatedly since her husband’s passing.
"She’s packed up her things so many times, but the government has always acted unscrupulously. There have been endless excuses," said Liao. [Source]
Body language says it all: A day before in her Beijing apartment, Liu Xia was self-contained, restrained, quiet, furtive, anxious. What a beautiful, explosive contrast a day can make!!
— Rebecca Davis (@rebeccaludavis) July 10, 2018
Davis’ AFP colleague Pak Yiu noted:
#LiuXia’s apartment is still guarded heavily with men sitting at the entrance to her building questioning anyone who nears and people patrolling the park opposite her building…despite her having left China
— Pak Yiu (@pakwayne) July 10, 2018
NYU law scholar Jerome Cohen welcomed the news of Liu’s release, but warned that while her brother remains in China, Liu will be far from entirely free:
[…] Liu Xia is now physically free but still enslaved mentally since her brother Liu Hui has been intentionally kept hostage. Liu Hui was convicted of fraud in 2013 and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He’s been released under medical parole, a lesser criminal law restraint, which can be revoked by the authorities at any time. So for Liu Xia her release is a half-way house toward freedom, really a new form of restriction, another ingenious type of detention-equivalent administered by a PRC that spawns new types of detention almost every day, as the Xinjiang “re-locations” illustrate.
Liu Xia’s restricted release is certainly a case of China responding to outside pressures—enormous pressures of various types including those generated by human rights groups. The PRC, like the rest of us, tries to turn a vice into a virtue and make the best of a difficult situation. They still have Liu Xia’s brother to trade and what about the missing human rights lawyers and the hundreds of thousands lawlessly locked up in Xinjiang? There’s a lot of material to work with any time they feel the need to get better press by releasing some people without actually reducing their repression. [Source]
Cohen similarly and accurately warned before Liu Xiaobo’s death last year that his medical parole might exemplify “the increasingly frequent Chinese police practice of what I call ‘non-release “release”‘, which usually means formal release from prison into another form of coercive confinement.”
Besides the continued vulnerability of Liu’s brother, two incidents following her release offered a reminder that it is an exception to, not a reversal of, the prevailing wintry political climate. On Wednesday, democracy campaigner Qin Yongmin received an exceptionally harsh 13-year sentence for subversion. The same day, the Unirule Institute headed by liberal economist Mao Yushi was expelled from its offices in Beijing, with some staff briefly trapped when property managers welded the door shut.
The machinery of unrelenting cruelty is working again, after just a few hours of respite. https://t.co/CmgwLgAiNi
— Yaqiu Wang 王亚秋 (@Yaqiu) July 11, 2018
Nevertheless, Liu’s escape was sufficient cause for celebration for a group of prominent friends still in Beijing, who gathered to toast it:
Wow: Beijing-based friends of Liu Xia toasted her departure. Incredible cast – journalist/dissident Gao Yu, rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Bao Tong (top advisor to former premier Zhao Ziyang) etc. "May the blessings of her native land follow her to a free nation, forever!" https://t.co/eMErfprEmY
— Rebecca Davis (@rebeccaludavis) July 11, 2018
CDT cartoonist Badiucao celebrated with an adaptation of his earlier work from the time of Liu Xiaobo’s death in tribute to a widely circulated photo of Liu Xia’s arrival in Helsinki en route to Berlin:
This is how freedom looks like. Cartoon for #LiuXia pic.twitter.com/TIHUKkNrk2
— 巴丢草 Badiucao (@badiucao) July 10, 2018
Art performance in Paris for celebrating Liu Xia‘s freedom in EU！What a journey！
When Mona Lisa with Liu Xia’s hair and glasses：）
see u inside The Lourvre soon！
— 巴丢草 Badiucao (@badiucao) July 10, 2018
CDT Chinese has compiled more of Badiucao’s related work.
Celebratory statements came also from Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee:
On behalf of the Norwegian Nobel Committee I express my deepest gratitude to Liu Xia and her late husband, Liu Xiaobo, for their heroic effort in favour of human rights and individual freedom in China. One day their sacrifice will be to the benefit of all Chinese citizens. I will also use the opportunity to thank Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German government for their unwavering support first to Liu Xiaobo, who died in captivity on 13 July 2017, and thereafter to his widow Liu Xia.
Last year the Norwegian Nobel Committee issued an open invitation to Liu Xia to come to Oslo and receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 on behalf of her late husband. It will be up to Liu Xia to decide the circumstances under which this will happen. On behalf of the Committee, I send her my warmest wishes and unconditional support on this historic day. [Source]
From UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein:
“I very much welcome the fact that Liu Xia has been permitted to leave China. Her predicament since her husband Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 has been nothing short of tragic, and her physical and mental welfare since the untimely death of Liu Xiaobo last year has been of great concern to everyone. Their story is one of great courage and great sadness.”
“I hope Liu Xia can find some personal peace and restore her health in Germany. I hope too that Chinese human rights defenders, their families and lawyers, who have been deprived of their liberty for expressing critical views, will be released. I share the concerns about the future of Liu Xia’s younger brother, Liu Hui, who remains in China and hope he will be allowed to join his sister in Germany if he so wishes.” [Source]
“It is a tremendous relief that Liu Xia has been able to leave China for freedom abroad,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Ever since her late husband received the Nobel Peace Prize while in a Chinese prison, Liu Xia was also unjustly detained. The German government deserves credit for its sustained pressure and hard work to gain Liu Xia’s release.”
[…] “The release of Liu Xia shows that when concerned governments push hard enough, Beijing will back down,” Richardson said. “Pressure is still needed so that Chinese authorities won’t harass Liu Xia’s family members in China.” [Source]
From Amnesty International’s Patrick Poon:
“It is wonderful news that Liu Xia is finally free and that her persecution and illegal detention at the hands of the Chinese authorities has come to an end, nearly one year since Liu Xiaobo’s untimely and undignified death.
“Liu Xia never gave up on her wrongfully imprisoned late husband, and for this she was cruelly punished. The Chinese authorities tried to silence her, but she stood tall for human rights. However, after eight years under illegal house arrest her health is a cause for genuine concern.
“Now, the harassment of Liu Xia’s family who remain in China must end too. It would be most callous of the Chinese authorities to use Liu Xia’s relatives to put pressure on Liu Xia to prevent her from speaking out in future.” [Source]
And from PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel:
“PEN America is jubilant at the news that Liu Xia, poet, photographer, and wife of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Independent Chinese PEN Center founder and former President Liu Xiaobo, has finally been freed after nearly eight years under house arrest. Liu Xia was never accused of a crime. Her forced solitude was an emblem of Chinese cruelty toward a wife whose husband was ripped away from her for the crime of expressing his views, and then—nearly exactly a year ago—allowed to die in prison while denied access to potentially lifesaving medical treatment abroad.
PEN America’s members and supporters, working in solidarity with writers and readers all over the world, have campaigned relentlessly for Liu Xia’s freedom throughout her confinement through letters, postcards, petitions, live protests, social media campaigns, videos, the distribution of her poems, and readings of her work. She has never been far from our thoughts, including this spring when dozens of artists and writers joined in literary solidarity with Liu Xia. Her release is a testament to the power of collective voices being raised in support of those who others would brutalize into silence. We commend the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government for their role in demanding her freedom. We call on the Chinese Government to permit Liu Xia’s brother, Liu Hui, to travel freely and to release all other political prisoners.” [Source]
Read more reactions compiled by Hong Kong Free Press’ Catherine Lai, and more about Liu Xia via CDT.