It’s been almost a year since Nobel peace prize winner, writer, and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo passed away of liver cancer in custody in China, with Beijing rejecting pleas for the dissident to be allowed to travel abroad for treatment. After his death, his wife Liu Xia—who was with him in the hospital in his last days—disappeared back into the state of house arrest she’d lived in for years.
But now, Liu Xia is reported to have been allowed to leave China.
BBC China reported Tuesday (July 10) that she departed Beijing on a Finnair flight to Berlin this morning, citing unnamed sources. Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post later said it had also independently confirmed her departure.
The Chinese foreign ministry confirmed Liu Xia’s departure, according to AP. Calls to the German embassy in Beijing went unanswered, and the German consulate in Hong Kong didn’t immediately respond to queries sent via email.
If the reports that she’s been released to Germany are true, it would mark an end to nearly a decade of unofficial detention for Liu Xia—who has been kept under strict state surveillance since Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2010. The award came a year into Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year prison sentence for “subversion of state power” for co-authoring a manifesto in 2008 that called for fundamental changes in China’s governance. Few are allowed to visit her and plainclothes police patrol around her Beijing apartment. Those close to her say she suffers from heart ailments and depression, and has many times asked to leave China.
It’s also a big win for Germany, one of the few countries allowed to send a doctor to China last year to examine Liu Xiaobo. The country has been raising human rights issues and the situation of Liu Xia on multiple occasions with China, a major trade partner and investor. While in Beijing in May, German chancellor Angela Merkel met with the wife of a detained human rights lawyer. On the same visit, at a joint press conference with Merkel, Chinese premier Li Keqiang said China was prepared to discuss “relevant individual cases” with Germany.
The reports of Liu Xia’s departure come as Li wraps up a two-day visit to Germany. Li met Merkel on Monday to discuss financial and business deals amid the US-China trade war.
A poet, a painter, and a photographer herself, Liu Xia’s writings are inward-looking, wrote Ian Johnson, noting that her poems are laden with symbols associated with the struggles of dissidents in China, such as birds and the empty chair that has come to to represent Liu Xiaobo. Last year, the clear devotion of the couple through years of separation touched many, and inspired one Chinese cartoonist to illustrate their bond.
On Chinese social media, some are expressing their happiness for her—obliquely, of course, so as to avoid censorship. On the microblog Weibo, one user based in Germany wrote (link in Chinese), “Willkommen in Deutschland! Willkommen in die freie Welt!! Welcome to Germany, to the free world!”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Liu Xia departed China late Monday. She departed Tuesday morning.