After spending much of the past eight years imprisoned in her own home, Liu Xia, widow of China’s most prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, was finally freed on Tuesday and is on her way to Germany.
The 57-year-old poet, painter and photographer had been under house arrest since 2010, when her husband Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison. Liu Xia has never been charged with any crime.
She was reunited with Liu Xiaobo in late June last year at a Shenyang hospital after the pro-democracy campaigner was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and released from jail on medical parole. He knew he may not have long to live, but friends at the time said Liu Xiaobo wanted to leave China for treatment, and for his wife to go with him. Chinese doctors said he was unfit for travel, and he died on July 13 aged 61.
A petite woman with a shaved head and glasses, Liu Xia has been seen as “the most important link” between Liu Xiaobo and the outside world. Beijing has continued to keep her and her brother Liu Hui under tight control since the dissident’s death, despite constant lobbying from foreign governments and human rights groups to set her free. The Chinese authorities have maintained that she has the same rights as all Chinese citizens.
After Liu Xiaobo’s funeral in July last year, his widow did not return to her home in Beijing until September, as calls grew from the international community and supporters for her release.
This February during the Lunar New Year holiday, Liu Xia and her brother Liu Hui were visited by a top official from the Ministry of Public Security, trusted by President Xi Jinping, who suggested she could be freed after the annual legislative session the following month, sources told the South China Morning Post earlier.
Two separate sources close to Liu Xia said she had been pressing to leave China since last year, but only with her brother, after the authorities indicated they might allow her to go.
“But then they refused to do so,” one of the sources said. “It wasn’t until she backed down and decided to go [without her brother] when her health deteriorated over the past few months [that Beijing agreed].”
Her younger brother, Liu Hui, was not believed to be with Liu Xia on a Finnair flight bound for Berlin on Tuesday. The other source suggested that with Liu Hui still in China, his sister would be less likely to speak out about her treatment by Beijing from overseas.
After the Lunar New Year visit and the promise that she could soon be on a plane, Liu Xia began to despair when nothing had happened by April.
“I’m so angry that I’m ready to die here … If I’m dead, it’ll all be done with,” she told exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, who released an audio clip of their phone conversation the following month.
That prompted Western governments, including Germany and the United States, to renew their calls for Beijing to release Liu Xia.
In May, Berlin officials again said that should Liu Xia choose to go to Germany, she would be welcome there. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Beijing and met Xi later that month.
China’s foreign ministry confirmed on Tuesday that Liu Xia had left for health reasons and that she had gone to Germany to “treat her illness according to her wishes”.
Liu Xia is said to be taking medication for clinical depression after years under house arrest. During that time, her phone and internet lines have been cut and she was barred from taking a daily walk in case she was approached by activists or journalists. She was only allowed out to visit her husband and parents, and for escorted trips to buy groceries.
The poet and artist was reported to be suffering from heart problems and severe depression in December 2013, but was reluctant to seek medical attention because she feared further punishment. She was eventually admitted to hospital the following month, where she was treated for a heart condition. The deaths of her father in 2016 and her mother in February last year added to the mountain of grief Liu Xia was carrying.
Liu Xiaobo was jailed for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges after co-authoring a petition known as Charter 08 calling for sweeping political reforms in China.
October 2010: Liu Xiaobo wins Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xia placed under house arrest soon after
May 2017: Liu Xiaobo diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and released from jail on medical parole
June 2017: Liu Xia reunited with Liu Xiaobo in hospital. The couple apply for Liu Xiaobo to go overseas for medical treatment
July 13, 2017: Liu Xiaobo dies
September 2017: Liu Xia returns to her home in Beijing
February 2018: A senior Chinese police official said to be trusted by President Xi Jinping visits Liu Xia, suggesting she could be freed from house arrest in a matter of weeks
April 2018: With no word from the authorities about leaving, Liu Xia tells her friend Liao Yiwu: “There is nothing I fear now. If I can’t leave, I’ll just die at home. Xiaobo has already left, there is nothing in this world for me. Dying is easier than living – there is nothing simpler for me than to protest with death.”
July 10, 2018: Beijing confirms Liu Xia has left China for Germany “to treat her illness according to her wishes”