By: Daniel McElroy

Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo. Photo: Reuters

In the week since the death of Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, supporters around the world have joined in remembrance of his life, his work and influence as well as the unjustness of his 11-year prison sentence in China for “inciting subversion of state power,” and have also stepped up calls for the release of his widow, the painter, poet and photographer Liu Xia, from house arrest. She has not been seen or heard from since his funeral.

On June 27, Liu Xiaobo was released on medical parole to be treated for advanced liver cancer as his condition worsened. He died of multiple organ failures on June 13, after China denied repeated requests for him to travel abroad for treatment, which was backed by an international chorus of support from individuals and human rights organizations. In his last days he was allowed to see his wife more often than the once-per-month visits to which they had been limited for the past seven years, and he used his medical parole to write a final poem for her, which will soon be published along with some of Liu Xia’s photography. It is thought they were allowed to touch for the first time in eleven years, but during the period of his hospitalization Liu Xia was prevented from speaking freely to family, friends or media.

Liu Xiaobo’s supporters gathered from Hong Kong to San Francisco on July 19, the seventh day following his death, which is traditionally a significant day of mourning in Chinese culture, even as authorities contacted and visited activists warning them not to participate in such vigils. On the same day, rumors surfaced that Liu Xia, had been forcibly taken on a “vacation” to the southern province of Yunnan, as reporters attempting to visit her home were surrounded by plainclothes security agents demanding that they leave the premises immediately. Close friends maintain that they have been unable to contact her in any way since the funeral on July 15. The last known picture of Liu Xia is at the funeral.

Further repression of Xiaobo’s supporters has ramped up in the wake of his death as well. A Beijing-based human rights lawyer who attempted to demonstrate outside the Shenyang hospital where Liu died was detained without charge at a police station until after the funeral, and another activist who authorities feared would try to protest or participate in memorials has been under house since June 27, the day Liu began medical parole. Two activists were detained for 10 days after they attempted to make contact with Liu Xia during the Liu Xiaobo’s burial at sea by throwing a bottle at her containing a message. All Chinese social media, including WeChat and Weibo, have blocked even one-on-one conversations from referencing Liu Xiaobo or using phrases such as “RIP”. Even the funeral itself is likely an attempt to erase the influence of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. As The New York Times reported:

On Saturday, authorities accompanied by Liu Xia and a few relatives lowered Liu Xiaobo’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean at Tiger Beach near Dalian, a form of burial that his supporters said was mandated by the state and designed to erase any physical traces of China’s best-known political prisoner and prevent the transformation of Liu’s grave into a memorial site. For centuries the practice of cuoguyanghui — literally “file down the bones and scatter the ashes” — was known as a cruel form of posthumous punishment in traditional Chinese culture, which placed importance on being laid to rest in tombs that could be visited and venerated by descendants and loved ones.

Outside China, supporters gathered on beaches to mourn while others turned Liu’s sea burial into a meme as people on Wednesday posted pictures of an empty chair — a reference to Liu’s unoccupied seat at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2010 while he was imprisoned — next to bodies of water. On Tuesday afternoon, police took away Jiang Jianjun, a Dalian man who had posted online about scattering flowers at Tiger Beach, his wife told The Associated Press.

What is clear is that the more China tries to erase the memory of Liu Xiaobo, the more the world is taking notice, but what now appears to be the forced disappearance of Liu Xia, who has never been charged but kept guarded and largely isolated in her apartment for more than seven years, likely represents a whole new set of international law violations by China in this case. The UN’s 1992 Declaration on the Protection of All persons From Enforced Disappearance, adopted by consensus,  is quite clear:

Article 1

1. Any act of enforced disappearance is an offence to human dignity. It is condemned as a denial of the purposes of the Charter of the United Nations and as a grave and flagrant violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed and developed in international instruments in this field.

2.    Any act of enforced disappearance places the persons subjected thereto outside the protection of the law and inflicts severe suffering on them and their families.  It constitutes a violation of the rules of international law guaranteeing, inter alia, the right to recognition as a person before the law, the right to liberty and security of the person and the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  It also violates or constitutes a grave threat to the right to life.


Article 4

1.    All acts of enforced disappearance shall be offences under criminal law punishable by appropriate penalties which shall take into account their extreme seriousness.


Article 10

1.    Any person deprived of liberty shall be held in an officially recognized place of detention and, in conformity with national law, be brought before a judicial authority promptly after detention.


We call for the release of Liu Xia, who is not accused of any crime. Any actions by Chinese officials to hold her incommunicado is yet another clear violation of international law by China.

And we urge concerned individuals to speak out. Learn more about Liu Xia’s situation here, and join us in calling on the government of China to release her.

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