This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.
On July 10, the Chinese authorities finally ended their de facto house arrest of Liu Xia, a painter, a poet, and the widow of the late Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, and allowed her to leave for Berlin.
It’s worth considering what distinguishes Liu’s case from those of the many dissidents and activists who continue to be held in Chinese prisons or prevented from leaving the country. The two-pronged approach of private and public diplomacy paid off in Liu’s case, and may yet yield results for others, however dark the situation looks.
The first thing to remember is that Liu, unlike her husband, who was tried for “inciting subversion of state power” in 2009, was never accused of any crime by the Chinese government. In this respect, she differs from the dissident writer Qin Yongmin, who was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment for “subverting state power” the day after Liu flew to Germany, or the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who was imprisoned for life for “separatism” in 2014. As questionable as the charges against these two and others may be, their trials at least adhered to a thin veneer of judicial process.
By contrast, Liu never faced any charges in court or had any opportunity to present a legal challenge to her treatment. The only reason she was subjected to illegal house arrest for eight years was her unyielding support for her husband, Liu Xiaobo.
This meant that the authorities could not accuse those who called for her release of interfering in China’s judicial process or claim that she was a criminal who had endangered national security, an accusation directed at so many other peaceful activists.
Throughout Liu Xia’s eight years of illegal detention, the Chinese authorities repeated the ludicrous claim that she was free to do as she wished and enjoyed the same rights and freedoms as any other Chinese citizen “in accordance with law.” Statements like these only made Liu’s plight resonate more with those, both within China and abroad, who could see the injustice being done to her.
The timing of Liu’s release is significant, coming just days before the first anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death, when calls for her release were set to crescendo. Her release also coincided with a series of significant diplomatic talks. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was in Germany, the human rights dialogue between China and the European Union took place earlier this week, and the EU-China Summit starts on Monday.
Behind the scenes, foreign diplomats and other officials had been pushing for her case to be on the agenda at these talks. This undoubtedly contributed to the mounting pressure to secure her release.
Some, then, might consider this to be a success of “quiet diplomacy.” But if so, the conditions for this success were created by public, sustained, and vocal pressure, including campaigns from Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations. Without such pressure, kept up over years, it is hard to imagine the demand for Liu Xia to leave China remaining on the diplomatic agenda for so long. This two-pronged approach, involving years of diplomatic and public pressure, was crucial to achieving Liu’s release.
Germany’s role in the negotiations should also not be understated. China is as skilled as any state in diplomatic horse-trading. The diplomatic push was more powerful for being spearheaded by Germany, a strategic trade partner that has also been consistent in bringing up human rights issues vis-à-vis China.
China excels in such stubborn diplomatic negotiations and made no immediate concessions. An article published in May by Liu’s good friend Liao Yiwu, a famous Chinese dissident writer exiled in Germany, suggested that China may have been delaying in order to get maximal benefit — in the meantime, cruelly dangling carrots in front of Liu.
She was first told that she would be allowed to go after the 19th Party Congress in October last year. But that promise went unfulfilled. She was then told that she would be allowed to go after the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March. Again, the authorities reneged on their promise.
These repeated empty promises left Liu in despair, as revealed in a harrowing telephone conversation Liao had with her in April , a recording of which was released in May. It was not only diplomats and journalists following her case who were moved and saddened by her anguish — ordinary people were also shocked and asked why the Chinese government was being so cruel.
In a remarkable show of solidarity, writers including Paul Auster (author of The New York Trilogy), Alice Sebold (who wrote The Lovely Bones), and J.M. Coetzee (a Nobel laureate in literature) were moved to join a public call for their fellow artist’s release — sustaining the public focus on Liu’s plight up to the eve of her release.
Though Liu Xia is now free, some things remain uncertain. Her younger brother, Liu Hui, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2013 on questionable fraud charges but released on bail later that year, remains in China — a point Beijing refused to negotiate on. Some fear that Liu Hui will be used as leverage to keep Liu Xia from speaking out in the future.
Liu’s release may have been contingent on her very specific circumstances but is something we should cherish, precisely because it is something we see so rarely these days. And we should take heart, because it shows China is not impervious to public and diplomatic pressure. This must be the glimmer of light as we look to secure freedom for other peaceful activists unjustly imprisoned in China.