China allowed the widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to leave for Germany nearly a year after the dissident’s death, at a time when Beijing is seeking allies in Europe as part of its trade fight with the U.S. After months of lobbying by foreign governments, Liu Xia boarded a Finnair flight in Beijing on Tuesday and was ultimately bound for Berlin, according to a family friend and a Western diplomat. Her release marked a change for Beijing, which had resisted freeing her from house arrest despite calls from mostly European governments since her husband’s death July 13. Beijing is now in the midst of an escalating trade battle, hit by the Trump administration with 25% tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese exports, and it sees Europe, with its bruising trade fight with the U.S., as a potential partner, scholars and Western diplomats said.
The day before Ms Liu’s release, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in Berlin their shared commitment to free trade in a swipe at the Trump administration. “It looks like a signal from Beijing that they recognise that during this period, they need Germany as someone who affirms their willingness to be a responsible player on the world stage,” said Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of public policy research at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. “Because of the U.S. trade war, China seems to have the sense that they need more reliable and supportive partners in Europe.” At a regular briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Ms Liu is going to Germany for medical treatment “based on her wishes.” Ms Hua didn’t otherwise explain why Beijing permitted the 57-year-old writer and artist to leave.
Ms Liu had lived under house arrest for eight years, and during that time she was periodically described by the few people and reporters who saw her as being in a fragile state of mind. In May, family friend Liao Yiwu released a phone recording in which Ms Liu said she was ready to die. “The German Embassy knows all about my situation. The whole world knows. So what’s the point in me writing those things again and again?” she cried. Germany has been a persistent advocate for allowing Ms Liu to leave, according to foreign diplomats and rights activists. Ms Liu wanted to go to Germany, they said, because she has friends there. Chancellor Merkel raised Ms Liu’s case directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping this year, according to people briefed on the matter, and she met regularly with rights activists on her trips to China. In contrast, as China’s economic and diplomatic clout has grown, many Western leaders have increasingly left human-rights matters to be raised by other officials.
Human rights experts see Ms Liu’s release as evidence that Beijing can still be moved on human rights cases if it suits other government priorities. “It’s proof it works if you bring up a high-profile case in trade negotiations,” said Patrick Poon, a researcher for Amnesty International. An annual EU-China human rights dialogue, being held this week in Beijing, also drew attention to Ms Liu as well as other cases, though in previous years the meeting had yielded little progress as Chinese authorities rounded up political critics, religious activists and civil rights lawyers. Beijing ignored Western calls last year for the release of Ms Liu’s husband to receive overseas treatment for liver cancer; he became the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die while in custody since Nazi Germany. In another high-profile case, Beijing has refused to allow bookseller Gui Minhai, a naturalised Swedish citizen, to leave China, removing him from a train in front of Swedish diplomats in January.
Ms Liu was put under house arrest after her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his decades of campaigning for democracy. Since his death a year ago, Ms Liu had grown increasingly distraught, as she received repeated assurances from authorities that she would be released, yet remained in detention, according to friends. The German government kept quiet about its efforts to free Ms Liu to avoid scuttling the negotiations, according to people familiar with the situation. Some friends had feared China would never release Ms Liu, to prevent her from speaking out and becoming a rallying symbol for critics of China’s Communist leadership. Her husband was an eloquent proponent of democracy and civil liberties. He was denied a public voice since his arrest in 2008 for penning a manifesto for peaceful democratic change and throughout his 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion, which he served until his death. His wife has never been charged with a crime. Ms Liu’s brother, Liu Hui, remains in China, Amnesty’s Mr Poon said, and authorities could use him as leverage to keep her from speaking out from overseas.
Credit: Eva Dou and Lingling Wei for The Wall Street Journal, 10 July 2018.