Liu Xia: the apolitical poet who became a democracy activist’s wife
When her democracy activist husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Liu Xia was elated.
“I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I don’t know what to say,” the Chinese poet and painter told AFP over the telephone that October.
She thanked “all those people that have supported Liu Xiaobo” and “strongly asked” the Chinese government to release the dissident, who died a year ago of liver cancer while on medical parole from an 11-year sentence for “subversion”.
Nearly eight years ago, neither Liu nor her husband’s supporters foresaw the repercussions the award would have on her: a writer and artist who never considered herself a political person. She unflinchingly supported Liu Xiaobo but never actively participated in his campaigns.
Shortly after the Nobel announcement, Liu, 57, was placed under effective house arrest, where she remained under heavy surveillance and control until her stunning release yesterday.
Close friends said she had limited access to the outside world, and was only occasionally permitted to leave her Beijing apartment to visit her parents or her husband at his prison in the northeastern province of Liaoning.
At a private funeral before his cremation, a grieving Liu Xia and relatives stood in front of her husband’s body, and she “fixed her eyes on him a long time, mumbling to say farewell”, Shenyang city official Zhang Qingyang told reporters.
Following Liu Xiaobo’s release on medical parole last June, the dissident requested permission to receive treatment abroad – an unfulfilled wish that friends believed was for Liu Xia’s sake.
“If he doesn’t get out now,” Ye Du, another dissident and close family friend, said at the time, “then he has no way to obtain freedom for his beloved wife.”
The primary doctor responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s treatment said at a press conference late on Thursday that in the activist’s final moments, he told his wife to “live well”.
But for almost a year that wish has remained out of reach, as she has remained under house arrest in her residential compound in Beijing, where friends said she was losing her will to live.
“They should add a line to the constitution: ‘Loving Liu Xiaobo is a serious crime – it’s a life sentence’”, she told a close friend in an emotional phone call last month.
‘At the edge’
“I didn’t have a chance/ to say a word before you became/ a character in the news,/ everyone looking up to you/ as I was worn down/ at the edge of the crowd,” Liu Xia once wrote in a poem to her husband.
It was a shared love of literature that brought the two intellectuals together in the 1980s.
She was an effervescent young poet, painter and photographer; he a public intellectual.
“She was not part of our group of dissidents,” Hu Jia, a Beijing-based activist and friend of Liu Xiaobo, told AFP.
“When I visited Xiaobo, she wouldn’t get involved with our political discussions. She just came out once in a while to share a laugh.”
The couple’s supporters often say that Liu Xia, who has never been formally charged, is guilty of nothing but the “crime” of being Liu Xiaobo’s wife.
“I want to marry that enemy of the state!” she said shortly before the pair wed in 1996 during Liu Xiaobo’s stay at a labour camp, according to a biography of the dissident by Yu Jie.
In turn, Liu Xiaobo lamented the political web in which Liu Xia had become entangled.
“My love for you,” he said in his final public statement, “is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight.”
At the start of her house arrest, Liu Xia posted regular wry updates on Twitter for her concerned friends.
“It’s me, dummy Liu, no need to worry,” read her last tweet on October 18, 2010.
Sometimes the posts would sink into melancholy: “Why do we have to live this kind of life?” she wrote on June 16, 2010.
Virtually all of her friends’ attempts to visit her were stymied by the guards that stood sentry outside her apartment at all times.
Through the years of detention, Liu has suffered from depression and a heart condition and both of her parents died.
On a rainy night in the summer of 2012, Hu stood outside Liu’s apartment and aimed a laser pointer at the window of her study.
Liu looked out, but didn’t see him.
“She was just standing there alone, smoking a cigarette,” Hu said. “She looked so lonely.”
“[Now] our most important goal is to save Liu Xia from the bitter sea.”
How tragedy and repression unfolded
Nearly eight years after her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xia is free. Kept under near total house arrest with no formal charges, her only crime was loving Liu Xiaobo – a dissident whose calls for democracy had angered Beijing.
The Chinese government said she was a private citizen, free to go at anytime. But her residence was kept under a tight guard, her movements restricted, and, almost a year after her husband’s death, she had nearly given up hope of ever being released.
Now she is on her way to Berlin, thanks in part to the behind-the-scenes efforts of German diplomats.
Here is a timeline of her de facto house arrest.
October 8, 2010
Liu Xiaobo is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu Xia’s de facto house arrest begins soon after.
May 23 2017
Liu Xiaobo is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He is sent to a hospital in Shenyang days later, where Liu Xia joins him. They are kept under guard and out of public view.
July 13, 2017
Liu Xiaobo dies, becoming the first Nobel laureate to die in captivity since the Nazi Germany era. Liu Xia is incommunicado. Diplomats begin to pressure China to let her leave for Germany in accordance with her husband’s last wishes.
July 16, 2017
Liu Xia scatters her husband’s ashes at sea. It is the last time she is seen in public for almost a year, during which time she is held in Beijing under de facto house arrest.
July 10, 2018
Liu Xia flies out of China on Finnair flight A85 headed for Berlin.