On July 10, 2018, Chinese authorities finally ended their de facto house arrest of Liu Xia, a painter, poet, and the widow of Liu Xiaobo—China’s most famous activist, Nobel Laureate, and social research author. She was allowed to leave China after almost eight years of living under house arrest, days before the anniversary of her husband’s death.
Despite facing no charges, the 57-year-old poet had endured heavy restrictions on her movements since 2010 when her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize, an award that infuriated Beijing. However, though she is free and living in Germany now, many believe Liu is unable to enjoy her this freedom for fear that Beijing may take revenge on her brother, Liu Hui, who is under house arrest on accusation of fraud.
Although we rejoice in her freedom, Liu should never have experienced such unjust incarceration in the first place—neither should have countless others, including students and academics unjustly jailed in China.
Liu’s freedom came after coordinated and persistent international advocacy that was reinforced by many human rights groups and supported by many European countries, notably Germany. This shows that campaigning and international pressure do in fact work.
Now that Liu Xia is free, we must intensify our efforts in advocating for the release of the countless other academics and human rights defenders in China.
For those who still remain in jail
In China the number of political prisoners exceeds 1,400 by some counts and feasibly over a million if we include the widespread incarceration of Uyghurs in what China calls “re-education centers." It is already too late for some of these political prisoners such as Yang Tongyan, the recipient of the 2008 PEN/ Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, who died last year, shortly after his release from Nanjing Prison on medical parole due to his diagnosis with an aggressive form of brain cancer. There is, however, still hope for other dissidents.
It has been over four years since Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, a professor of economics who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in China's Xinjiang region, was arrested on charges of promoting separatism. He is now serving a life term behind bars in China. On January 17, 2018, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described Tohti’s situation as “typical of the massive human rights violations taking place under [Chinese] President Xi Jinping.” The detention and imprisonment of such an prominent intellectual, cultural leader, and voice of moderation, should be seen as an important part of China’s larger totalitarian designs on the Uyghurs.
Liu Hui, Liu Xia’s brother, is under house arrest. He was convicted of fraud in 2013 and sentenced to 11 years in prison in a case that human rights groups believe was brought up in retaliation for the attention his brother-in-law received as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Liu Hui has been released under medical parole, a lesser criminal law restraint, but it can be revoked by the authorities at any time.
Lawyer Wang Quanzhang who seemingly vanished in 2015, appears to have been in custody for over 1,000 days because he defended many political activists and victims of land seizures at no cost. He has since been charged with “subversion of state power,” but authorities have blocked lawyers from visiting him, and no trial date has been announced. Recent accounts, however, hint that a lawyer may have finally been allowed to see him. Wang Quanzhang is a victim of the 709 crackdown in July 2015 during which more than 200 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists were detained or questioned in the largest suppression of the legal profession in recent history. Wang’s case represents everything cruel about Xi Jinping’s assault on human rights.
Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan linguistic educator, was arrested in early 2016, two months after he was featured in a New York Times video and article about Tibetan language education. He was sentenced to five years in prison as punishment for campaigning for Tibetan language and speaking with the news journal.
These are a few for whom we as human rights advocates must intensify our efforts toward justice. We must work together to put pressure on the Chinese government to free them.
Liu’s release may have been contingent on her specific circumstances, but it is something we should cherish precisely because it is something we see rarely these days. We must remember that her release took years of coordinated action, constant international advocacy, and diplomatic pressure in order to raise the stakes for China and thus finally end Liu’s incarceration.
We at Endangered Scholars Worldwide join with the many others around the world in celebrating Liu Xia’s freedom for her own sake and because it shows that China is not impervious to public and diplomatic pressure. This serves as a glimmer of hope as we look to secure freedom for other peaceful activists unjustly imprisoned in China.