Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, left China in accordance with her own will to seek medical treatment in Germany, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has said.

News emerged on Tuesday that Liu, who had been under de facto house arrest for years, had boarded a Finnair flight from Beijing to Germany at around 11am. As she transferred flights in Helsinki, Finland on Tuesday evening, Chinese University associate politics professor Chow Po-chung shared a picture of her on Facebook smiling at an immigration point.

Liu Xia
Liu Xia. File photo: Chow Po-chung, via Facebook.

But concerns remain about her brother Liu Hui, who is still in Beijing. Some have expressed fears that authorities are using him as a “hostage” to ensure that Liu Xia will not say anything to displease the Chinese government while she is abroad.

According to Hong Kong media, MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying said she could not see how Liu’s departure was related to Premier Li Keqiang’s current official visit to Germany.

She did not respond to a question over whether the development was related to China’s trade war with the US, and added that immigration authorities are handling the matter according to the law.

Hua said that Hong Kong reporters seemed to be especially concerned about individuals, and urged them to broaden their horizons as there was a wide range of topics within China’s foreign affairs.

See also: Liu Xia ‘on flight to Berlin’ after years of de facto house arrest

Liu Xia’s brother Liu Hui told RTHK that he accompanied her to the airport himself on Tuesday morning, and a friend was accompanying her to Germany.

He said they received notification that Liu would be able to leave the country last week.

Hua Chunying
Hua Chunying. File Photo: Global Daily News YouTube screenshot.

He said he was very happy, and felt as if a heavy load had been taken off his shoulders.

“Our parents and Xiaobo entrusted [her] to me, now that she has safely left, I’m very emotional,” he said.

He said her health and mental state were “not ideal” as she was heavily affected by the death of their parents and her husband: “I hope after she gets out, she can look after her health and her emotional state, and then slowly begin her new life.”

When asked if he thought he was being held hostage by the authorities, Liu Hui said he hoped to visit his sister in Germany in the future, but that there were technical issues that must be resolved first. He said he was still free to contact the outside world.

liu xiaobo vigil tribute memorial
File photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP.

Liu Hui was sentenced to 11 years in jail on fraud charges in 2013, in a case which was widely seen as political persecution. He has since been released on bail.

Liu Xiaobo was a Chinese poet who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. He was jailed for 11 years a year earlier for inciting “subversion of state power,” after he penned Charter ’08 – a manifesto urging democratic reform. He died a year ago this Friday after battling liver cancer while on medical parole, making him the first Nobel laureate to die in custody since 1938.

Reactions pour in as Liu Xia leaves China

Albert Ho, veteran Hong Kong lawmaker

Ho told HKFP that the authorities probably thought that, by releasing Liu Xia, they would create a big reaction, but they calculate that it would not last long.

“There are very strong elements within China who do not want to acquiesce to foreign pressures, but the problem is that they cannot keep her under house arrest… in the long term because they will face international condemnation, and they do not have an explanation, so it’s a very tricky hot potato… Apart from Liu Xia, everyone is also very worried about [detained human rights lawyer] Wang Quanzhang. We don’t know whether he is dead or alive, everyone is very worried.”

Michael Caster, human rights advocate and researcher

Xiaowaves, a group of Liu Xiaobo’s supporters formerly known as the Freedom For Liu Xiaobo Action Group

“We noticed that Liu Xia’s brother Liu Hui still remains in the country, just like a hostage. Liu Hui was previously sentenced to 11 years for so-called fraud, and used to pressure Liu Xia to stop speaking out about Liu Xiaobo, he was released on medical parole, but his sentence could be carried out at any time… We call on the international community to continue to try to save Liu Hui, to release Liu Xia from worries, to let her obtain true freedom.”

Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of free expression writers’ group PEN America

New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said:

“Liu Xia should have been able to live – and grieve – freely while her husband was wrongly detained and when he grew ill and died. We hope that she is en route to freedom and hopefully a more peaceful life. President Xi Jinping should be held responsible for the extraordinary cruelty inflicted upon Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo, and should refrain from harassing other family members.”

Reporters Without Borders

Amnesty International

Patrick Poon, China Researcher at Amnesty International, said:

“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 speaking out in the future.”

Correction 20:30: An early version of this article stated Liu had arrived in Germany. At the time, Liu had arrived in Helsinki, Finland to transfer flights.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.