Stunned that reporters were able to visit her, Liu Xia (劉霞) trembled uncontrollably and cried on Thursday as she described how absurd and emotionally draining her confinement under house arrest has been in the two years since her jailed activist husband, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), was named a Nobel Peace laureate.
In her first interview in 26 months, Liu Xia spoke briefly with journalists who managed to visit her apartment while the guards who watch it apparently stepped away for lunch. Her voice shook and she was breathless from disbelief at receiving unexpected visitors.
Liu Xia said her continuing house arrest has been painfully surreal and in stark contrast to Beijing’s celebratory response to this year’s Chinese victory among the Nobels — literature prize winner Mo Yan (莫言). Liu Xia said she has been confined to her duplex apartment in downtown Beijing with no Internet or outside telephone line, and is only allowed weekly trips to buy groceries and visit her parents.
“We live in such an absurd place,” she said. “It is so absurd. I felt I was a person emotionally prepared to respond to the consequences of Liu Xiaobo winning the prize. But after he won the prize, I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.”
Once a month, she is taken to see her husband in prison. It was not clear when Liu Xia started regular visits with her husband or if they would continue following her interview. She was denied visits for more than a year after she saw him two days after his Nobel win and emerged to tell the world that he had dedicated the award to those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Liu Xiaobo is four years into an 11-year prison term for subversion for authoring and disseminating a programmatic call for democracy, Charter ‘08. In awarding him the peace prize, the Nobel committee cited that proposal and his two decades of non-violent struggle for civil rights.
Beijing condemned Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 award, saying it tarnished the committee’s reputation to bestow it on a jailed criminal.
That fury was replaced with jubilation and pride this year, after the announcement that Mo — who has been embraced by China’s government — had been named winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.
The authoritarian government’s detention of the Liu couple, one in a prison 450km northeast of Beijing and the other in a fifth-floor apartment in the capital, underscores its determination to keep the 57-year-old peace laureate from becoming an inspiration to other Chinese, either by himself or through her.
Her treatment has been called by rights groups the most severe retaliation by a government given to a Nobel winner’s family. Though she is forbidden to discuss the specifics of her situation with her husband, she says he knows that she is also under detention.
“He understands more or less,” she said. “I told him: ‘I am going through what you are going through, almost.’”
Liu Xia, dressed in a track suit and slippers, was shaken to find several journalists at her door. Her first reaction was to put her hands to her head and ask several times: “How did you manage to come up? How did you manage?”
At about midday, the guards who keep a 24-hour watch on the main entrance of Liu Xia’s building had left their station — a cot with blankets where they sit and sleep.
Liu appeared frail and said that she has a back injury that frequently keeps her confined to bed. Her hair was shaved close to her head, a severe look that she has worn since before her husband was jailed in 2009.
A poet, photographer and painter, Liu Xia said she spends her time reading and sometimes painting. She last saw her husband a few weeks ago and said he was in good health, but she could not remember the exact date of the visit.
“I don’t keep track of the days anymore,” she said. “That’s how it is.”
Two years ago today, the Nobel committee held Liu Xiaobo’s award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, with an empty chair on stage to mark his absence. The Chinese government kept Liu Xia and other activists from attending and pressured foreign diplomats to stay away. For a time, the empty chair became a symbol of support for Liu on the Internet.
During a rare phone interview a few days after the award was announced, Liu Xia sounded hopeful her confinement would be brief.
“I’m sure that for a moment the pressure will be greater, I will have even less freedom, even more inconvenience, but I believe they won’t go on like this forever and that there will be positive change in the future,” she said.
However, little has changed, for her or her husband. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week reiterated its position that Liu Xiaobo is a convicted criminal and that giving him the peace prize represented “external interference in China’s judicial sovereignty and domestic affairs.”
Today, attention turns again to another Nobel awards ceremony, this one in Stockholm, Sweden, where the shadow of Liu Xiaobo is expected to hang over Mo’s moment of glory.
A prolific writer of raw and magical fiction centered on rural Chinese life, Mo is often savagely critical of officials in his stories, but he has faced criticism for not being a more outspoken defendant of freedom of speech and for being a member of the Chinese Communist Party-backed writers’ association.
When asked about Liu Xiaobo at a meeting with reporters after being named literature prize winner in October, Mo said he hoped for his early release, but did not push the issue.
Mo dodged questions about Liu Xiaobo at a news conference in Stockholm on Thursday, noting that he had already expressed his opinion and suggesting that people could search the Internet to find those remarks.
He also said that although the truth should not be censored, defamation and rumors should be. He likened censorship to a security check at an airport and said: “I think these checks are necessary.”
Other Nobel laureates have been more outspoken. An appeal this week by 134 Nobel laureates, from peace prize winners like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Taiwanese-American chemist Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲), called the Lius’ detention a violation of international law and urged their immediate release.
“This flagrant violation of the basic right to due process and free expression must be publicly and forcefully confronted by the international community,” the laureates’ appeal said.
Until Thursday’s unexpected interview, the last images of Liu Xia were released in October by the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, which did not say how it obtained them. The grainy video showed a lone woman smoking by her apartment window at night.