Status: In Exile
Poet and writer Liu Xia had been held virtually incommunicado under extralegal house arrest since her husband, Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. When her husband was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer in June 2017 and released on medical parole, Liu Xia was reportedly able to visit him. After his death in July 2017, she was again put under house arrest. Following a global campaign to free Liu Xia, on July 10, 2018, she was allowed to leave China and seek refuge in Germany.
Liu Xia, poet, artist, and founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) was married to the imprisoned poet, literary critic, and former ICPC President, Liu Xiaobo. Liu Xia had been under extralegal house arrest ever since her late husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. Authorities severely limited her access to communications tools and in-person visits from friends and relatives. Liu suffered from insomnia, depression, and heart trouble, but was only occasionally been able to receive medical attention.
Following her husband’s diagnosis of late-stage liver cancer and release on medical parole, Liu Xia was reportedly allowed to visit him for the first time in several years. After his death, she was put under house arrest and only appeared in public in a one minute video uploaded to YouTube in August 2017 that her supporters believe represents a coerced appearance and statement. On July 10, 2018, after a long diplomatic campaign by the German government as well as other civil society groups, Liu Xia was allowed to leave China and enter into exile in Germany.
March 2019: An exhibition of photographic works by Liu Xia revealing the grief of families of political prisoners is held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, which marks her first show in Asia since her release from house arrest in July 2018.
July 10, 2018: After having been under house arrest for almost 8 years, Liu Xia leaves China and boards a plane to Europe. Prior to her release, the German government had been working on a diplomatic campaign to allow Liu Xia to leave the country. Following her release from house arrest, Liu Xia flies to Helsinki, Finland; her final destination is Germany. The day before her release, the European Union and Chinese officials were engaged in a human rights discourse. The next week, the annual summit meeting is scheduled between China and the European Union.
Liu Hui, Liu Xia’s brother, stated, “My sister left Beijing midday today. She is flying to Europe to start her life anew,” he said. “I’m grateful for all those who cared about and helped her over the years. I also pray that our parents and my brother-in-law will continue to bless her. I hope her life from now on is filled with peace and happiness.”
July 4, 2018: UN experts call for the release of Liu Xia, stating: “we are disturbed by reports of the deteriorating health of Liu Xia. She is reportedly physically restricted at an unknown location and suffers from severe psychological distress.”
May 2, 2018: Liao Yiwu, a friend of Liu Xia, releases a phone recording of a conversation he had with Liu Xia. In the recording, Liu Xia pleads through sobs to leave China—further amplifying the injustice of her house arrest and inability to leave to the country. Additionally, Liao Yiwu also releases an essay that details the circumstances of the call and chronicles the unsuccessful efforts made thus far for her release. He states that though “in early April the German Foreign Minister had already made specific arrangements, including as to how they’d not alert the news media, how they’d covertly collect Liu Xia at the airport, and how they’d arrange her treatment and recovery and more,” these attempts have not yet come to fruition.
September 2017: A human rights activist based in Hong Kong speaks with Liu Xia for approximately thirty minutes, while a friend of hers states that he was able to speak to her for only a few seconds. Other than these disparate incidents, Liu Xia continues to be denied contact from the outside world.
August 2017: A roughly one-minute video of Liu Xia is uploaded to YouTube, marking her first appearance since the funeral of her husband. In the video Liu Xia speaks directly to the camera, stating that “I am outside recuperating, everyone please grant me time to mourn, time for my heart to heal and one day I will be able to face you all in a healthy state.” The video’s structure and content fit squarely within the pattern of Chinese propaganda videos in which individuals give coerced statements that promote the party narratives, and several of those close to Liu Xia have concluded that it is unlikely she made these comments of her own free will.
July 2017: Liu Xiaobo dies in Liaoning on July 13. In a July 15 press briefing, a Chinese authority states that “Liu Xia is free.”
June 2017: On June 26, Liu Xiaobo is released on medical parole to a hospital in Shenyang, Liaoning province, following a diagnosis of late-stage liver cancer. Authorities place restrictions on access to him but permitted both his wife, Liu Xia, and his family to visit him.
January 2014: Liu Xia is rushed to hospital in Beijing after suffering myocardial ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart). She returns for further tests in early February but is discharged the following day, under the recommendation that she receive specialist medical care. Her phone line is reconnected to enable access to emergency medical help.
December 2013: A friend and Hong Kong-based activist Zeng Jinyan posts three of Liu Xia’s requests to the Chinese government on her blog. Zeng Jinyan has not disclosed how she received the information. The requests were as follows:
- “I request the right to consult a doctor freely;”
- “I request that Liu Xiaobo and I are allowed the right to read the correspondence we write to each other;”
- “I request the right to work and receive an income.”
When pressed, the Chinese government continues to deny that Liu Xia is living under any form of confinement or house arrest and suggested that those who wanted to talk to her could do so. Still, reporters, diplomats, and citizens are stopped by guards at the gates of her apartment complex and denied entry. Liu Xia remains under extralegal house arrest without access to phone, Internet, or post. Many who have attempted to visit her have been detained.
According to Zeng Jinyan, Liu Xia is not willing to see a police-appointed doctor for fear of being interned in a psychiatric hospital, a punishment sometimes used by the Chinese authorities to silence human rights defenders. Regarding her second request, Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo have not been permitted to read the letters they send to each other.
April 2013: Liu Xia is finally permitted to be seen in public for the trial of her brother, Liu Hui, who was arrested on trumped-up fraud charges and later sentenced to 11 years in prison. Leaving the courthouse, Liu Xia shouted to reporters from her car window: “I am not free. If they tell you I’m free, tell them I’m not free.”
December 2012: A handful of Liu Xia’s friends push past security and are able to visit with her for several minutes. Friend and fellow activist Hu Jia records the visit. Liu Xia can at times be seen smiling—perhaps at the mere fact that she was finally able to embrace one or two of her friends, whom she hadn’t seen in more than two years—and at times crying, terrified of any repercussions she and her family might face because of the breach.
February 2011: Liu Xia manages to obtain a brief Internet connection and sends an urgent message to a friend saying that she and her family are being held hostage by the government and that she is “going to go crazy.”
Liu Xia is completely incommunicado until December 6, 2012, when two AP journalists manage to get past security guards and make a brief visit to the poet in her home. Video shot by the reports shows a shaken and at times overwhelmed figure who can hardly believe she is face to face with visitors. During the subsequent interview, Liu Xia reveals that she had been barred from visiting Liu Xiaobo in prison for a year after the Nobel announcement, but she was finally allowed to visit Jinzhou Prison, some 280 miles away, once a month. Still deprived of phone and Internet, she remains cut off from the outside world but for weekly visits with her parents and trips to buy groceries.
October 2010: Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland announces from Oslo that Liu Xiaobo is to receive the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and nonviolent struggle for human rights in China.” In the hours following the announcement, reporters descend on Liu Xia’s apartment complex in Beijing, and she states that she plans to give a press conference. Police move quickly to set up a roadblock at the entrance to the complex, but she is able to give short telephone interviews for several hours. In some of these interviews, she warns that an official promise to bring her to Liu Xiaobo in Jinzhou Prison, so that she can deliver news of the award, has an ulterior motive: “They want to distance me from the media,” she tells Reuters shortly before her phone went dead.
Liu Xia returns after visiting Liu Xiaobo in prison on October 10 and turned to Twitter to explain that the authorities had put her under house arrest on Friday evening, shortly after the award announcement, and broke her phone. She said she did not know when she would see anyone but asked everyone to “please help me push.”
Liu Xia’s Internet and phone lines are cut, and friends and family are barred from visiting her, rendering her incommunicado. She is not permitted to fly to Oslo for the December 10 Nobel award ceremony.
FREE EXPRESSION IN CHINA
In recent years, addressing the dire situation for free expression in China has been one of PEN America’s signature campaigns. With the world’s largest population, and with increased economic and political heft, China’s extensive censorship apparatus limits speech both within and outside its borders. Although new digital platforms have expanded the means of expression, they have also provided more opportunities for repression: in China, even a simple Tweet can land its author in jail. Since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013, he has overseen an extensive crackdown on free speech, implementing additional laws and censorship controls on the Internet, media, and publishers. In addition, individual Chinese writers, journalists, and creative artists have been censored, harassed, imprisoned, and even disappeared after they speak out about sensitive topics such as the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, corruption, and the lack of democratic reform. Several dozens are currently behind bars because of their writings or creative expression. Read more about freedom of expression in China here.
IN THEIR WORDS
“I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.” – My dear husband Liu Xiaobo, the writer China has put behind bars