Chinese Nobel laureate’s release from prison met with relief and worry

An Amnesty protest for Liu Xiaobo's freedom in 2010. (Credit: Andrea Brygard / Aktiv I Oslo.no / Flickr)

Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was released from prison Monday on medical parole after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer.

The Chinese government is coming under fire for failing to provide adequate medical care sooner to Liu and for continuing to restrict his freedom as well as that of his wife, who is under house arrest. Critics complain Liu has been unfairly restricted from meeting with family and friends, not to mention accessing medical treatment abroad.

Human rights advocates say Liu’s tragic fate is representative of many others who have also fallen victim to China’s growing clampdown on civil society and dissent.

Liu, 61, is a writer and literature professor who had previously been jailed twice for supporting students in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and for other human rights activities in the 90s.

But in December 2008, Chinese authorities detained him once again for helping draft a pro-democracy manifesto called Charter 08. A year later, he was formally indicted on charges of “incitement of subversion of state power” and sentenced to 11 years in prison – the longest known sentence since the crime was introduced.

While he was in prison, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

However, the Chinese foreign ministry denounced the award to Liu, calling him a criminal and denying him a representative to collect the prize. In his stead, the committee left an empty chair on stage.

Shortly after, authorities placed Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest without charges. China also promptly cutting off imports of Norwegian salmon – depriving Norway of its largest market. After six years and concessions by Norway that raised concerns among human rights advocates, the two countries announced in December 2016 that they had normalized relations.

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But on Monday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee responded to news of Liu’s parole with “a mixture of relief and deep worry.”

“The committee is delighted to learn that Liu Xiaobo is out of prison at long last,” it wrote in a statement Monday. “At the same time the committee strongly regrets that it took serious illness before Chinese authorities were willing to release him from jail. … Chinese authorities carry a heavy responsibility if Liu Xiaobo, because of his imprisonment, has been denied necessary medical treatment.”

In a cellphone video released late Monday, Liu’s wife said through tears that her husband’s cancer could not be treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. However, the government has denied requests by the couple to seek treatment outside the country or return to their home in Beijing.

“The Chinese government’s culpability for wrongfully imprisoning Liu Xiaobo is deepened by the fact that they released him only when he became gravely ill,” Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, said in a press release. “The government should immediately allow Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, to seek proper treatment wherever they wish.”

The U.S. has also weighed in with its concerns, calling on China to grant the couple “genuine freedom.”

“We call on the Chinese authorities to not only release Mr. Liu but also to allow his wife Ms. Liu Xia out of house arrest,” spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Mary Beth Polley, said, according to media reports.

Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio has urged President Trump to facilitate Liu’s “immediate humanitarian transfer to the United States.” Trump, so far, has remained silent.

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But Chinese foreign spokesman Lu Kang criticized the U.S. for speaking out of turn, reiterating China’s sovereignty over domestic issues – a principle the government often cites in discussions of international human rights standards.

“China is a country with rule of law. Everyone is equal before the law. All other countries should respect China’s judicial independence and sovereignty and should not use any so-called individual case to interfere in China’s internal affairs,” he said, according to the BBC.

Recently, in 2014 and 2015, two other dissidents died in prison after allegedly being denied medical treatment. According to Richardson, Liu has a large enough profile internationally that the government presumably does not want to him to die in detention.

But even with his high profile, Liu languished in prison for years without significant support from democratic countries, for fear of being bumped from China’s economic and diplomatic negotiating table. In the meantime – especially since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012 – China’s crackdown on civil society and dissidents has only grown stronger in the name of national security.

The Trump administration so far has kept mum on China’s human rights record in favor of making economic trade deals. However, in a report today the State Department is expected to downgrade China for the first time to the lowest tier of countries that are the worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labor.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.