The photograph of a euphoric Liu Xia, the poet and widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, landing in Helsinki on Tuesday for a short layover on her way to freedom in Berlin earlier this week spoke for itself: grinning broadly, her arms spread like a bird in flight, she had finally, after the imprisonment and death of her husband and years of psychological torture under house arrest in Beijing, escaped the clutches of her tormentors.

Her frail body told of her prolonged detention by security forces in China, but her newfound joy and energy showed the strength of her spirit—indeed, of the human spirit, and was an inspiration for all to see. 

One cannot help but share in Liu’s happiness and exhilaration and hope that she soon recovers from the clinical depression and physical debilitation that her ordeal has cost her. 

But this is no time for celebration. While Liu, 57, is beginning a new life of freedom in Berlin, many other lesser-known dissidents continue to languish in prisons and detention centres in China, and President Xi Jinping’s three-year-long crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists continues unabated.  

Indeed, Xi’s purge of hundreds, if not thousands, of putative subversives is the worst such witch hunt since the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s military assault on the pro-democracy protesters who occupied Tiananmen Square for nearly two months in the spring of 1989. 

And, just in case anyone was inclined to misinterpret the release of Liu as a sign that the Chinese leadership was softening its stance on critics of its authoritarian one-party rule, less than 24 hours after Liu’s arrival in Berlin human-rights activist Qin Yongmin was found guilty of “subversion of state power” by a court in Wuhan and sentenced to 13 years behind bars.

That’s the harshest sentence meted out for subversion by a Chinese court in 15 years and comes on top of the 22 years the 64-year-old Qin has already spent in prison for “counter-revolutionary” activities. 

So much for human rights in China. 

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Looking at the broader picture, it becomes clear that Liu, who spent eight agonising years under house arrest although she was never charged with any crime, is just another pawn in China’s ongoing geopolitical chess match with Western powers, now divided by the aggressively nationalistic policies of United States President Donald Trump.

Caught in a growing trade dispute with the US that is threatening to blow up into a full-on trade war, Xi hopes to curry favour with Germany and, by extension, the European Union with the release of Liu for medical treatment.

But this apparent “humanitarian” gesture, as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has so maladroitly characterised it, is in reality a cold diplomatic calculation, offering no promise of better treatment for others bold enough to speak out against the Chinese government on their home turf.

It should be remembered that Liu herself is actually no dissident; she is an accomplished poet and painter who just happened to be married to the man who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his long campaign to bring about a freer, more democratic China.

Liu Xiaobo’s efforts included lending support to the student-led Tiananmen protests 29 years ago and, more recently, coauthoring Charter 08, a manifesto signed by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists calling for the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system in China. 

Liu Xiaobo Liu Xia
Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia. Photo: Handout.

Liu was arrested in December of 2008, two days before the scheduled official release of the charter, indicted a year later for “inciting subversion of state power” and sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Beijing court on Christmas Day, 2009. 

Memorably, a year later, Liu’s Nobel Prize was awarded to an empty chair in the Norwegian capital of Oslo—an iconic moment that drew an angry response from the Chinese government, whose foreign ministry had denounced the choice of Liu as a “desecration of the Peace Prize,” and prompted further repression of dissent across China.

Aged 61, Liu died of liver cancer in a hospital in Shenyang one year ago this Friday after being refused treatment abroad, the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1938. Liu is rightly regarded as a hero in many places, including Hong Kong, where the anniversary of his death was marked in a solemn ceremony organised by pro-democracy activists, as it was in Berlin and in other cities around the globe. 

Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair during the Nobel Prize awarding ceremony in 2010. Photo: VOA via Wikimedia Commons.

Liu’s legacy lives on in these memorials and in the revived spirit of his widow as she starts her new life in Berlin. 

It would be unfair, however, to expect Liu Xia to pick up the human-rights mantle that her husband left behind. No doubt, once she has recovered her health, she would be willing, but her two brothers, Liu Tong and Liu Hui, remain in China as additional pawns in the Chinese government’s great geopolitical game. 

If Liu speaks out from Berlin, they could very well suffer the consequences back home. Liu Hui, her younger brother, has already spent time in prison on trumped-up fraud charges and would likely be a target for retribution again if his sister lobs anti-China criticisms from her perch in the German capital.

That’s why this feel-good story of the long-suffering Liu Xia’s release winds up, in the end, feeling pretty bad. 

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.