News / Asia

Nobel Laureate's Wife a Prisoner in China as Well

Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (L) his wife Liu Xia (file photo)
Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (L) his wife Liu Xia (file photo)

It has been a year since imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and yet little has changed. Liu remains behind bars and his wife, Liu Xia, has become a prisoner in China as well.  She is under house arrest, cut off from the outside world and prohibited from seeing all but a few family members.

Liu Xia has been progressively deprived of her contact with the outside world since shortly after her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, says the Chinese government has not been shy about persecuting Liu Xiaobo's family members.

The past year, she says, has been miserable for Liu Xia. "In the one brief incident when she was able to get online and tweet, she used that very word herself - 'miserable' - to describe her own circumstances, and that she was being held quote hostage with her family by the government," said Richardson.

According to human rights advocates and reports from China, Liu Xia is being held at a residence in the suburbs of Beijing.

Amnesty International says Liu Xia's mother, who lives in the same complex, has been allowed to visit her daughter only occasionally.  Family members are pressured by police not to reveal any details of Liu Xia's situation.  

Until a few months ago, Liu Xia was allowed to visit Liu Xiaobo in prison.  Recently, Liu himself was allowed out of prison for part of a day to attend a memorial service for his father.

Chinese authorities have thwarted all attempts by journalists and diplomats to contact Liu Xia - either by personal visits, telephone or through the Internet.

"If they try the electronic means, there is no access essentially because Liu Xia and her family members aren't able to receive those calls or emails of tweets," said Richardson. "And the house is on a street, there are guards who are posted there - sometimes they are in uniform and sometimes they are not - who simply prevent people from even approaching the gate."

Chinese authorities maintain that Liu Xia is free, and allowed to do whatever she wants.

However, rights activists say the treatment Liu Xia and the family of Liu Xiaobo are receiving is not uncommon.

The family of Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist lawyer who was released from prison last year, has been put under house arrest even he served four years in jail.  Because of this, his daughter is unable to attend school.

Chen was sentenced to prison after he campaigned to stop authorities from forcing peasants to have abortions or be sterilized.

Sharon Hom is executive director of Human Rights in China. "The key point is that [Liu Xia's situation] is reflective of the human-rights situation in China today: of the enforced disappearances of the writers, the artists, the bloggers, the defenders.  And her situation is really reflective of the broader situation, that requires much greater international scrutinty and attention," she said.   

Rights activists and political analysts believe part of this intensified effort to clamp down is linked to China's upcoming leadership transition in 2012, and that it is also an attempt to prevent any "Arab Spring" type of activism from taking root in China.

What is even more worrying, rights advocates say, is that China is also looking at changes to its laws that would allow authorities to hold individuals under a form of residential surveillance for up to six months - but not in their own homes.

"The Chinese government's response to international pressure over the disappearances of lawyers, writers, bloggers earlier in the year as a means of stamping out any possible 'Arab Spring' in China was met not with a decision to stop using those tactics, but quite perversely by an inclination to legalize them," said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

Given the hardening security environment in China, rights activists say it's doubtful Liu Xia's situation will change any time soon.  And with amendments on the table to China's Criminal Procedure Law, they express concern that authorities' ability to make dissidents disappear may not ease off, but expand.

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