Under house arrest for eight years, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo was unexpectedly allowed to leave China Tuesday. DW’s Sabine Peschel spoke with Tienchi Martin-Liao of the Chinese PEN Organization.Human rights activist Tienchi Martin-Liao, editor of Liu Xiaobo’s works, has been a friend of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s family for years. With peace prize winner Liao Yiwu, Nobel Literature Prize winner Herta Müller and many other intellectuals in Germany, she has worked for the release of Liu Xia. Martin-Liao, an author, translator and publisher, lives in Cologne and heads the unofficial Chinese PEN organization helping writers at risk, a position she took on in 2009 after Liu Xiaobo was arrested.
DW: Ms. Martin-Liao, did you know about this impending departure – something for which you have been fighting for a year?
What a joy! I didn’t know anything about this beforehand – it came from out of the blue. I talked to Liu Xia three days ago. She was in her apartment in Beijing. It’s possible she didn’t know about what was to come either, but even if she did, she couldn’t say anything. When I received the first call from a journalist at six o’clock this morning, I couldn’t believe it myself. Half an hour later, Liao Yiwu called me to confirm it.
How intensively was the German Embassy involved?
The ambassador, Mr. Michael Clauss, is accompanying Liu Xia. They departed this morning, shortly before 11:00 am Beijing time. In Berlin she will be received by Liao Yiwu and many others.
Why was Liu Xia released right now?
Indirectly, we can thank US President Trump. China and the US are now in a trade war. Not only that, the US has changed its overall geostrategic orientation. They are getting closer to Taiwan and have even sent an aircraft carrier into the Strait of Taiwan.
In response, China is looking for new allies. Which is not to say that China hasn’t been allied with Europe before. I mean now the Chinese government realizes it’s more necessary than ever before to maintain good relations with Germany and the EU. In that sense, Liu Xia’s release is only a strategic move, one that has nothing to do with human rights or humanity at all. I want to emphasize that.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has stressed that Liu Xia’s departure has nothing to do with the current visit of “Chinese leaders” to Germany.
News from China should always be read in reverse. It is just the opposite.
Was the visit by Chancellor Merkel in May decisive for the exit permit?
It certainly helped the case. Liao Yiwu and I have been in contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we know that the German government has been very concerned about Liu Xia’s case. That was always on the agenda during the talks. Merkel definitely addressed the issue with Xi Jinping during her May trip.
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How is Liu Xia doing?
She is physically weak. She had surgery a few months ago. Mentally: I’ve spoken with her many times over the past few months because I was worried about her. She was very unstable at one point, but is now reasonably stable. I think once she arrives here, the Germans will take care of her and ensure that she gets medical treatement, after which she will slowly recover. But what I’m really worried about is that she’ll now be confronted with a new culture, a new language and a new environment. I’m afraid that no matter how many people like her and help her, she’ll fall into a loneliness. She still needs her family and her closest friends.
Her brother Liu Hui was not allowed to leave. Will that put pressure on Liu Xia in the long run?
Absolutely. I cannot offer proof but I know from other cases, like that of Ai Weiwei, that if they are allowed to leave officially, they must always make some sort of deal with the Chinese government. Liu Xia knows that she shouldn’t say or do certain things so that her brother does not end up in danger. With Liu Hui, the Chinese government has a hostage in their hands. That’s an easy game for them.
Will Liu Xia stay in Berlin?
Hasn’t she grown lonely during her eight-year house arrest? Wasn’t it – at least some of the time – like solitary confinement?
That’s not entirely accurate. There were always many people figuratively at her side, who tried to comfort her. Most recently, I called her every few days and told her that she should not be home alone. There has always been someone there of late, including three days ago when I phoned her. She had relative freedom – she could occasionally go out to dinner with friends or play badminton. Life in Germany will be a new challenge for her.
Liu Xia was released three days before the anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death. Does that mean they wanted to get this out of the way in order to avoid any memorializing or reminders of his fate?
I think the timing is rather coincidental. The Chinese government did want to avoid commemorations about Liu Xiaobo in the form of a memorial service or anything like that. But Li Keqiang is in Germany now. The Americans have backed China into a corner. And the Chinese know very well that Liu Xia is an important person for Merkel, for the Germans.
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But I want to emphasize that no matter how happy we are about her release: this is an incredibly cynical gesture on the part of the Chinese government! They never considered Liu Xia a human being, never a sad woman who lost her husband, but viewed her instead like a package. A gift to the German government. This reflects only contempt for human rights. China will be less concerned with human rights issues in the future. Human rights do not exist there, it is only politics. They only do what serves political purposes.
There are still countless political prisoners in China. Who do you have to look after now?
Ilham Toti, the Uighur professor, has been given a life sentence, as has democracy activist Wang Bingzhang. Attorney Wang Quanzhang disappeared three years ago. There is a long line of prisoners: Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, reporter and activist Qin Yongmin, among others. Our PEN alone has seven members in prison.
The anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death is on Friday, July 13. What is PEN planning?
We are planning a big event in Berlin, a memorial service for Liu Xiaobo in the Gethsemane Church. My friend, the pastor Roland Kühne, Liao Yiwu and I arranged that; PEN did not directly participate, but of course it supports our activity.