China is keeping Liu Xia, widow of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, from talking to the world

Image: Shenyang Municipal Information Office via AP
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Where is Liu Xia? Last month it was the dying wish of her late husband, Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, that she be allowed to go abroad. Instead, Chinese authorities are keeping her hidden—and out of contact with the world.

A poet and artist, Liu Xia was last seen in a few photos from mid-July during the hastily arranged sea burial of her husband, who after years of imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power” passed away at a hospital in Shenyang, under strict watch until the end.

Since then Chinese officials, while keeping her whereabouts a secret, have repeated the mantra that Liu Xia is “free.” That’s hardly reassuring. They said the same thing while she was kept under house arrest and constant surveillance for the past seven years, permitted only rare family visits and even rarer outings. The latter were mostly to shop for groceries—under police escort—or to visit her husband while he languished in prison.

Some human rights activists believe authorities took her unwillingly to an undisclosed location in the southern Yunnan province. Others think she’s now back in Beijing, though they don’t know where in the city she’s being kept. Whatever the case, she’s “under tight surveillance,” says Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International. “She doesn’t have any communication tools: no telephone, no laptop, not even the iPad we know she used to have.”

She likely is or was recently in the company of her brother Liu Hui. In 2013, authorities sentenced her sibling to 11 years in prison for “fraud,” in a trial widely condemned as politically motivated. He was soon released on parole; now, some observers believe his continued freedom is contingent upon his sister staying in line.

“If she manages to go out and talk to the world, they can end his parole,” says Perry Link, a prominent scholar at the University of California, Riverside. “It is a crude form of hostage taking.”

There is little hope that Liu Xia—who’s never been accused of a crime—will see freedom anytime soon. For now authorities appear more concerned with keeping her from making statements to international media. An attempt by a Sky News crew to visit her Beijing apartment last week resulted in reporters getting roughed up at the entrance.

Friends and fellow activists are, for now, left to wonder how Liu Xia is holding up. “We don’t know anything about her health,” says Amnesty’s Poon. “Is her depression getting worse?”

Kindred spirits

Liu Xia was born in 1961 to Communist Party cadres. Her father worked for the Bank of China. She met her future husband in the mid-1980s, when she had a desk job for the Bureau of Statistics and he was a promising young talent in academic and literary circles. They married in 1996. By that time, he was in his second prison stint, working at a labor camp because of an open letter he cowrote that called for more democracy in China. She had left her job to concentrate more on poetry.

During a conversation I had with Liu Xia in 1997, she had this to say of their relationship, her small frame shaking with laughter before freezing with rage.

“Once we got together, people who only knew Xiaobo worried that maybe he was too extreme for me, since I seem frail, and too sensitive. Then they heard what I had to say about this political system, and decided maybe the real extremist was me. The difference is, I do not write these things down. After what they did at Tiananmen, I don’t want to take part in this society. I do not even want my work published in China for now.”

After her husband’s final arrest in 2008, she was not allowed to be anything but the recluse wife of the Nobel Peace Prize winner that China never wanted. Whatever her artistic aspirations might have been, her explorations were constrained by the lack of interaction with the outside world. But she kept writing poems, and developed a dark, surreal style of photography.

A steep price

While her experience has been extreme, other spouses of Chinese activists have suffered, too. Chen Guiqiu, an environmental science professor and the wife of imprisoned human rights lawyer Xie Yang, managed to flee China earlier this year and now lives in Texas with her two daughters. Chinese authorities prevent her from returning to China or contacting her spouse.

“My heart goes out to Liu Xia,” she said. “I had to flee, because life had become impossible also for our daughters, who were constantly being followed, even to school.”

Jin Bianling, wife of human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (charged with “subversion of state power” and now awaiting trial), also fled China and now lives in California. She expressed her concern for Liu Xia:

“I feel so much sympathy for Liu Xia. She is alone and doesn’t even know how much people support her. We are all afraid that she may not cope, that she may lose her mind. I have my daughter here with me. It’s a consolation, and the reason we had to flee. But the pain of not being able to speak with my husband, and the fear that he is being tortured, are crushing.”

Chinese authorities have for years put enormous pressure on the relatives of dissidents, Link notes. This ensures activists put not only themselves at risk, but also their families.

Said Jin Bianling:

“As a friend, as a citizen, I admire what my husband has done. As a wife and mother, sometimes I have wondered. His parents are peasants, and they are alone, too. He was their only resource. I don’t dare to say that he should have followed a different path, but our lives have been very hard.”

Liu Xia, too, has suffered deeply. Chinese authorities have turned her into a perennial recluse. No doubt she has much to say about their actions and other matters, but the world cannot hear her.