An unsettling video made at the bedside of ailing Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is circulating

A second opinion.
A second opinion.
Image: Andy Wong/AP Photo
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Several mainland Chinese and Hong Kong news sites on Sunday (July 9) shared a video that appears to show a portion of the visit by the two foreign doctors to ailing Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Liu Xiaobo, perhaps China’s most famous democracy activist, was moved at the end of June from prison to First Hospital of China Medical University in the northern city of Shenyang after Chinese authorities announced he has terminal liver cancer. In 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “subversion of state power” after he co-authored a manifesto calling for fundamental changes in how China is governed. Friends of the family say Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, have sought permission to travel abroad for medical treatment for Liu Xiaobo, but so far Chinese doctors treating him have said he is too ill to travel. Access to him is strictly controlled.

In the video, Liu is in bed, surrounded by several Chinese doctors and other medical staff, while the two foreign doctors are on his left. His wife, Liu Xia, dressed in dark clothing, stands at the foot of the bed, stiff and unmoving. “It is very good the doctors from China have asked us to come and help,” says the German doctor, Markus Büchler of Heidelberg University. “So it shows they are very committed.”

At one point the American doctor, Joseph Herman from the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, strokes Liu Xia’s back; later when he reaches out to her, appearing to ask her to sit, she stays standing. The video ends abruptly, as the doctor asks for tissues.

Since the visit, the two doctors have implicitly criticized the Chinese authorities in at least one respect—by contradicting the Chinese doctors’ stance that their patient can’t travel, and saying that they consider Liu Xiaobo fit to be moved, either to Germany (his first country of choice for treatment) or the US.

The video, which was picked up by Apple Daily and Hong Kong Free Press in Hong Kong, shows at least one Chinese doctor with a large hand-held camera filming the whole conversation, but it is not on the hospital’s website. A still image that appears to show a scene similar to the video can be found on the hospital’s website.

On July 10, the Germany embassy in China expressed “deep concern” over the recording.

We have noted with deep concern that certain authorities have evidently made audio and video surveillance recordings of the medical visit of Mr. Liu Xiaobo by a German doctor. These recordings were made against the expressed wishes of the German side, which were communicated in writing prior to the visit. It seems that these recordings are being leaked selectively to certain Chinese state media outlets. It seems that security organs are steering the process, not medical experts. This behaviour undermines trust in the authorities dealing with Mr. Liu’s case, which is vital to ensure maximum success of his medical treatment.

It’s hard not to see the 57-second video as another effort in a public relations campaign staged by China since Liu Xiaobo’s illness has become known, earning the country worldwide condemnation. China’s push to show it’s making every effort  on Liu Xiaobo’s medical treatment intensified ahead of the G20 meeting held in Germany last week. The hospital said medical experts from around the country were being dispatched to examine Liu, and an invitation was extended to the foreign doctors to visit him.

But what may linger longer from this attempt at damage control may not be the words of praise. Instead, it’s likely to be the central image of a frail and rigid Liu Xia, in a sea of white medical coats.

This post was updated on the date of publication (July 10) with a statement from the German embassy in China.