Global leaders urge China to release Liu Xiaobo’s wife

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Originally published by Nikkei Asian Review on July 14, 2017

Dissident’s death brings wave of criticism of Beijing — and major democracies

BANGKOK — Western leaders, human rights activists and Chinese survivors of the Tiananmen Square crackdown have called on Beijing to free Liu Xia, the wife of the late dissident Liu Xiaobo, from house arrest.

“I urge conscientious governments and people around the world to strongly condemn and sanction the Chinese Communist Party for persecuting a Nobel Peace Prize winner,” Wang Dan, a dissident and former leader of the student protest movement, wrote on his Facebook page. He also called on the international community to now “work together to help Liu Xia leave” China. She was put under house arrest in 2010 simply for being Liu Xiaobo’s spouse.

Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 but never managed to collect it, died of cancer on Thursday.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, also urged “the Chinese authorities to guarantee Liu Xia’s freedom of movement, and allow her to travel abroad should she wish so.”

In Hong Kong, Frances Eve, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told the Nikkei Asian Review that “Liu Xiaobo’s death is devastating,” as he was “a symbol for the struggle for universal human rights, democracy and rule of law in China.”

She said it is “essential that democratic leaders speak loudly and forcefully” and insist that the “Chinese government unconditionally frees his wife, Liu Xia, from the illegal restrictions on her and allows her to leave the country, if she chooses.”

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, “No government should let the death of Liu Xiaobo pass without challenging Beijing’s mistreatment of this critical voice for human rights, calling for Liu Xia’s freedom, and pressing for the release of all those wrongfully detained across China.” She added, “Governments should send a clear message to Beijing that the principles to which Liu Xiaobo devoted his life will thrive after his tragic death.”

Western government officials weighed in as well. “I call on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson echoed Tillerson’s remarks, saying in a statement that China should “lift all restrictions on his widow, Liu Xia.”

Liu Xiaobo, an outspoken critic of China’s Communist Party government, was slapped with an 11-year prison sentence plus two years of deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power” on Christmas Day 2009. His “crime” was allegedly organizing a manifesto, “Charter 08,” that called for the rule of law, an independent judiciary, respect for human rights and an end to one-party rule in China, among other reforms.

“The Chinese government bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in a statement on Thursday. “He had not committed any criminal act, but merely exercised his citizen’s rights. His trial and imprisonment were unjust.”

Even though his death is a great loss, Reiss-Andersen said, “it is our deep conviction that Liu Xiaobo will remain a powerful symbol for all who fight for freedom, democracy and a better world,” likening him to former Nobel laureates like Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and Carl von Ossietzky.

Ossietzky was a German journalist and a vocal critic of the Nazis, who was awarded the Peace Prize in 1935, but like Liu, imprisonment kept him from receiving the prize in Norway. He died in a hospital under Nazi guard in 1938, not too dissimilar to Liu’s death on Thursday in a hospital in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang.

Reiss-Andersen did not spare the international community, least of all the Western democracies, from criticism. “It is a sad and disturbing fact that the representatives of the free world, who themselves hold democracy and human rights in high regard, are less willing to stand up for those rights for the benefit of others,” she wrote.

Similar voices were heard from fellow Chinese activists who survived the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Wu’er Kaixi said on Facebook that “they killed him, under the broad daylight,” pointing the finger at Beijing. But he went on to say that “the world watched, tolerated, indulged. Those who can apply pressure to China but decide to yield for trade, you are accomplices of this murder.”

The former student leader, now living in Taiwan, denounced countries for shrinking from criticism of China on human rights in exchange for economic benefits.

Expressions of sorrow

After Liu’s death, the White House also released a statement, saying President Donald Trump was “deeply saddened.”

“A poet, scholar, and courageous advocate, Liu Xiaobo dedicated his life to the pursuit of democracy and liberty,” the statement said. “The president’s heartfelt condolences go out to Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, and his family and friends.”

French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to the late dissident on Twitter, calling him a “great freedom fighter.”

Expressing her “unparalleled sorrow” on Facebook, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen used the occasion to urge Beijing to take a step toward democracy. “We hope the mainland Chinese authorities show confidence and push forward with political reform to allow people on mainland China to enjoy their natural rights to democracy and freedom,” she said, adding that this would “create new opportunities for cross-strait relations” as well.

She also skewered President Xi Jinping’s pet phrase, “the Chinese dream.” The dream, she said, should not be about showing off state power, but what Liu Xiaobo envisioned: a democratic China. “By adopting democracy and allowing every single Chinese the liberty and dignity, then it is worth taking pride in being a true great power,” Tsai said.

In response to the wave of criticism from around the globe, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang insisted Liu Xiaobo’s case was a “domestic” matter, and that “foreign countries are in no position to make improper remarks,” according to Reuters. He added: “We call on relevant countries to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and not to meddle in China’s domestic affairs with this individual case.”

Nikkei researcher Ariana King in New York and Nikkei staff writer Debby Wu in Taipei contributed to this story.

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