Liu Xia, widow of Chinese human rights defender and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, days before the anniversary of her husband’s death, landed in Germany this week.

After years of unconscionable treatment, she deserves her freedom—she should never have lost it in the first place—but neither should have countless others unjustly jailed in China.

Liu Xia Liu Xiaobo
Liu Xia kissing a sculpture of Liu Xiaobo. /Liao Tianqi.

For Liu Xia, a sustained international campaign for her release and a strong ally in Germany paid off. Pressure works. Now that Liu Xia is free, we must redouble our efforts for the release of countless other human rights defenders in China.

An Eight-Year China Nightmare

In December 2008, Liu Xiaobo and hundreds others launched the Charter 08 manifesto, which among other things called for an end to one-party dictatorship. But before Charter 08 had even been made public, Liu Xiaobo had already been taken by the police. I recall well the initial interest and concern surrounding the campaign and crackdown on signatories, having arrived in Beijing a few months earlier to volunteer with the now defunct human rights group Empowerment and Rights Institute.

Liu Xiaobo Nobel empty chair
As a tribute to the absent Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Medal and Diploma were placed on an empty chair during the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony in Oslo, Norway, 10 December 2010. Photo: Ken Opprann/The Nobel Foundation.

A year later, in 2009, Liu Xiaobo was handed an 11-year prison sentence on vaguely worded subversion charges.

Liu Xia, on the other hand, has never been charged with a crime and yet shortly after it was announced that her husband had won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize she was cast into a nightmarish eight-years of de facto house arrest.

On 13 July 2017, Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer still imprisoned for his rights advocacy.

The last Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in state custody was Carl von Ossietzky in 1938 Nazi Germany. Ossietzky died in a concentration camp from untreated tuberculosis much like Liu Xiaobo was denied timely medical care that might have stalled or prevented his death. And much like Liu Xiaobo, Ossietzky was a prisoner when it was announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. In 1935, much like China today attempts to influence global bodies, Germany exerted tremendous pressure on the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and in fact succeeded to the extent that no Prize was announced that year. It wasn’t until a year later, on the same day as the 1936 Prize was announced, that Ossietzky was named as the 1935 laureate.

liu xiaobo year anniversary admiralty tamar (11)
Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

There are other parallels, such as the fact both Ossietzky and Liu were persecuted and lost their freedom largely for their writings against their respective authoritarian regimes. But even under Nazi Germany, Maud von Ossietzky was not treated with the same level of cruelty and guilt by association as China reserved for Liu Xia for eight years.

In late April 2018, speaking with friend and exiled dissident Liao Yiwu, Liu Xia’s voice cracks in the recording, “Now, I’ve got nothing to be afraid of…Xiaobo is gone, and there’s nothing in the world for me now. It’s easier to die than live.” It is not easy to listen to but now images of Liu Xia’s now smiling face should fill us with hope.

For Liu Xia, surely it was a combination of factors, some still unfolding. But put simply the cost for China had become too high. As Jane Perlez and Ian Johnson write, China had come to realize that Liu Xia “a talisman of international human rights groups, had become a liability just as China’s image was taking a battering.” Sustained international advocacy works.

We must continue battering China on human rights, for those who cannot speak.

For those who still cannot speak

In China, the number of political prisoners exceeds 1,400 by some counts, or possibly over a million if you factor in the widespread incarceration of Uyghurs in so-called “re-education centers.” As I have argued elsewhere, the 2013 Criminal Procedure Law has provided for the systematization of enforced disappearances in ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location,’ which has been further expanded in the National Supervision Law and its new detention system, Liuzhi – operating outside judicial safeguards and in the dark. China has a political prisoner problem, but certain cases are particularly emblematic and concerning.

Wang Quanzhang, my old friend and former colleague, has been disappeared for over 1000 days, although recent news suggests that a lawyer, although government appointed, may have finally been allowed to see him in detention. A victim of the 709 crackdown, Wang’s case is everything cruel about Xi Jinping’s assault on human rights lawyers.

wang quanzhang
Wang Quanzhang. Photo: RFA.

Ilham Tohti, economist, Uyghur rights defender, and Martin Ennals award winner is serving a life sentence on spurious charges of separatism. The detention and imprisonment of such an important intellectual and cultural leader, a voice of moderation, should be seen as an important part of China’s larger totalitarian designs on the Uyghurs.

Ilham Tohti
Ilham Tohti. Photo: Martin Ennals Award

The book seller and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, now past his 1000th day of detention, has been paraded on Chinese television and forced to deliver absurdly scripted remarks against the international community. Since being kidnapped in Thailand, China has flouted not only international law but basic decency.

gui minhai cctv
Gui Minhai. Photo: CGTN screenshot, via YouTube.

Tashi Wangchuk, Tibetan linguistic rights defender, following two years of arbitrary detention was sentenced to five years in prison as punishment for campaigning for Tibetan language rights supposedly protected in Chinese law. His crime was speaking with the New York Times.

Tashi Wangchuk.
Tashi Wangchuk. Photo: NYT screenshot.

These are a few for whom we must redouble our efforts for justice and just as we celebrate the release of Liu Xia, we must remember it took years of coordinated action, sustained international advocacy, and diplomatic pressure to raise the costs for China. There are always setbacks, such as the 13-year sentence handed down to Chinese activist Qin Yongmin a day after Liu Xia’s release, but the lesson is that pressure can sway a giant.

Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He is the co-founder and former associate director of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, a Beijing-based legal aid NGO that operated from 2009 until 2016 when it was forcibly shut down by the Chinese Government. He holds masters degrees in international law and human rights from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the University of Utrecht.