China is frantically trying to make sure Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo doesn’t die during the G20

Time is running out.
Time is running out.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Chinese authorities have kept political dissident and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in prison since 2008, only to “release” him last month because he has late-stage liver cancer. Now Beijing wants to look like it is pulling out all the stops to make sure Liu is kept alive—at least in the immediate future.

The Chinese government has invited foreign medical experts, including from the US and Germany, to help treat Liu, according to a statement posted yesterday (link in Chinese) by the justice bureau in Shenyang. Liu is being treated at a hospital in the northern city, the First Hospital of China Medical University, which also posted a statement yesterday (link in Chinese) containing the names of the medical professionals treating Liu, including a liver expert who is deputy head of the Liver Surgery Committee of the Chinese Medical Association.

Beijing’s apparent change of heart toward Liu didn’t come out of nowhere. Rights group Amnesty International said that the apparent softening attitude is “in part an attempt to limit international criticism,” as foreign governments have been pressing Beijing to allow Liu to receive treatment overseas. And this week just happens to be when the G20 summit is taking place in Germany, where China plans to continue portraying itself as the world’s new champion of free trade and openness at a time of perceived US retreat. A Nobel Prize winner dying of cancer due to maltreatment by China would be quite inconvenient.

Since Liu was granted medical parole in late June, China has been trying to show the world that he is being treated well. Last week, a video showing scenes of a man resembling Liu in prison surfaced online, though the source of the video was not clear. The man resembling Liu is shown to be undergoing various medical tests, and in one scene is visited by Liu’s wife Liu Xia.

But as Amnesty’s secretary general Salil Shetty said, “Time is running out for Liu Xiaobo”—and perhaps much faster than people had thought. Today an undated photo of Liu and his wife started circulating on the internet, with rumors swirling that Liu’s family have been told to be on “24-hour standby.”

Liu, 61, was sentenced to 11 years for “inciting subversion of state power” as he called for democratic reform in China as one of the authors of the manifesto known as “Charter 08.” He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 but was unable to receive his award in Oslo. His wife is under house arrest.