Two years after his Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo remains imprisoned, relatives are under house arrest or cowed into silence and, supporters say, the democratic change he sought seems further away than ever.
As the Nobel committee in Oslo prepares to award this year's prestigious prize today, the dissident writer remains the world's only jailed Nobel peace laureate, with more than seven years left to go of a sentence for subversion.
The Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based rights group, said yesterday that Liu's elder and younger brothers, Xiaoguang and Xiaoxuan, had visited Liu at his prison in Jinzhou, Liaoning province, on September 26, the first time since the three had met last September.
Citing Liu Xiaoguang, the group said Liu's heath and spirit appeared good.
But Liu's wife, Liu Xia, remains under house arrest at their home in Beijing to prevent her speaking about her husband's case, while his brothers continue to decline media interviews for fear of losing their occasional visitation rights to him.
"I don't have any information about Liu Xiaobo and I have been unable to reach Liu Xia," said Dai Qing, a fellow activist who is close to the couple.
Liu, who was jailed previously for his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years' jail for "attempted subversion of power" after co-authoring a bold manifesto for democracy.
Beijing lashed out after his 2010 Nobel prize and refused to allow him to attend the ceremony in Oslo, where he was represented instead by an empty chair.
Some have expressed faint hopes for the future of the Lius, citing the Communist Party's meeting next month to anoint a new set of leaders whose views on reform remain a mystery.
"The release of Liu Xiaobo, or at least the end of the house arrest of Liu Xia, which, if you recall, is totally illegal, would be a way to send a signal" that Beijing was willing to respect rights, said Jean-Philippe Beja, a French translator of Liu's writings.
But Beja, a friend of the family who said he had been unable to contact Liu Xia, was "not very optimistic in the short term".
Dai said the rights situation on the mainland could worsen if hardline propaganda chief Liu Yunshan was elevated to the top echelon of power at the party congress next month.
"If that is the case, and if it is he who will oversee ideology, there will no longer be any hope. China will enter a period of darkness," she said, comparing him to Kang Sheng, an infamous security chief under Mao Zedong. Hu Jia, another activist who spent three years in jail on subversion charges until his release last year, said he was worried about Liu Xia's health.
He was one of the few people to have seen her recently, he said, after visiting the Liu home in eastern Beijing at night to find it under heavy guard - as it has been since the Nobel award in 2010.
He aborted a plan to make contact for fear of endangering her. Hu believes "she is very lonely and smoking a lot".
Additional reporting by Staff Reporter