How China made Liu Xiaobo’s wife suffer too
Liu Xia was diagnosed with depression after years of house arrest and needs medication to sleep
Liu Xia, widow of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, spent almost seven years living under house arrest as her husband, serving an 11-year sentence for subversion of the state, languished in Liaoning’s Jinzhou Prison.
Following the dissident’s death from liver cancer on Thursday night, friends say they do not expect the authorities to loosen their grip on the 56-year-old painter, poet and photographer due to their overriding social stability concerns.
She was diagnosed with depression in 2014 after years of house arrest and the jailing of her brother, Liu Hui, on fraud charges in 2013.
“The extensive house arrest has basically wrecked her, even though she was allowed limited access to friends recently,” friend and activist Mo Zhixu said.
Liu Xia has been under house arrest since October 2010. Her phone and internet lines were cut to prevent her from becoming a rallying point for other activists. She’s been barred from taking her daily walk outside for fear she might be approached by activists or journalists, and was only allowed out to visit her husband and parents and for escorted trips to buy groceries.
Mo said the deaths of her father last year and mother this February had added to the mountain of grief Liu Xia was carrying.
Friends said she now required medication just to be able to sleep at night.
She’s rarely been seen in photographs or videos in recent years. One recent video, showing her from behind, was taken by a surveillance camera pointed at Liu Xiaobo’s sickbed in the heavily guarded First Hospital of China Medical University in Shenyang, Liaoning. Liu Xia’s petite frame and signature shaved head could be easily recognised as she sobbed, with a doctor fetching her a tissue.
Her husband was granted medical parole last month after being diagnosed with advanced liver cancer at the prison in May. He was eight years into his sentence after being convicted of subversion in 2009 for drafting the pro-democracy manifesto “Charter 08”.
When news of his medical parole broke last month, Liu Xia was seen sobbing in a video chat, telling a friend her husband was already “beyond surgery, radiation and chemotherapy”.
The pair met in Beijing’s literary circle during the 1980s and they married in 1996 so she could visit him in a labour camp.
Mo said that following Liu Xiaobo’s 2009 subversion conviction, Liu Xia’s priority had been her husband.
“She did everything in her power to ensure she got her monthly visits to Xiaobo,” said Mo, who accompanied Liu Xia on her first visit to see her husband in Jinzhou Prison after his conviction.
“I saw her smile for the first time in a very long while on the way, when she told me she had prepared a large bag of pickled cucumber and pickled beef. She even portioned out his daily ration,” he said.
Veteran activist Hu Jia, recalling his first time meeting Liu Xia in her Beijing apartment in 2006, described her as free-spirited and creative.
“I saw her playing around with her paintings,” he said. “She was just grinning and didn’t talk much. It looked like she was in a creative mood.”
Hu made more than 30 mostly futile attempts to visit Liu Xia while she was under house arrest, usually at night, in heavy downpours or blizzards, when visibility was poor and he hoped to be able to sneak past those guarding her.
He said that sometimes he would see her silhouette as she waved to friends downstairs, occasionally they would exchange a few brief words and on other occasions he would hear her sobbing tears of desperation.
Fear of being deprived of her monthly visits to her husband meant Liu Xia often suffered in silence. In a secret video filmed in her flat, she recited a poem comparing herself to a lone tree as she flipped through a yellowed notebook, a skinny cigarette dangling from her left hand.
“Is it a tree?” she asked.
“It’s me, alone.
“Is it a winter tree?
“It’s always like this, all year around.”
The happy snapshots taken in the early years after her marriage were gradually replaced by ones showing her shaken, terrified and sobbing under house arrest.
Early in 2013, she was allowed to attend her brother’s fraud trial, which critics suggested was a politically motivated case in retaliation for Liu Xia giving an interview to the Associated Press and seeing friends who snuck into her apartment to give her a hug and exchange a couple of private words before being escorted out.
“I still remember how tight she hugged us that night when we met briefly after storming into her fifth-floor apartment only to have to say goodbye the next minute,” Hu said.
“She really didn’t want to let us go but she had no choice.”
In December 2013, Liu Xia was reported to be suffering from heart problems and severe depression but was said to be too scared to seek medical attention for fear of further punishment.
She was eventually admitted to hospital in January 2014 for treatment for a heart condition.
Friends said she had kept that news and her years of suffering, as well as her brother’s jailing, from her husband until March this year, when she felt she couldn’t take it any more.