Judging by her apartment on the eve of her departure from Beijing to Germany, Liu Xia (劉霞) seemed completely unaware of her impending freedom — or perhaps unwilling to believe it.
Agence France-Presse on Monday evaded tight security to gain rare access to the fifth-floor duplex apartment where the poet has been held under de facto house arrest since her dissident husband, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
No bags or boxes had been packed in her wood-paneled, booklined home. Instead, in the center of her living room stood a large, unfinished white canvas, a square half-filled with cramped black numbers, painted obsessively into orderly rows: “20170713, 20170713.”
“It’s the date of Liu Xiaobo’s death,” she said.
On an opposite wall, beneath prominent photographs of her husband in happier times, she had propped up another of her paintings — a dark gray expanse bisected by large black blotches.
“It’s the closing of a tomb,” she said of the abstract oeuvre.
Liu Xia spoke in barely audible whispers, directly up against the reporter’s ear.
“They can hear everything that goes on in this apartment,” she said.
The 57-year-old gave no indication she knew anything of her imminent trip and declined to give a formal interview, citing fears for the safety of her younger brother.
A friend who asked not to be named on Tuesday told reporters that she had been issued a passport last week. Chinese authorities have maintained that Liu Xia was free, but imposed severe restrictions on her movement and placed her under constant surveillance.
Sparse light entered her apartment through the kitchen window, which faces a park encircled by barbed wire-topped fences, but the rest of the apartment’s curtains were tightly drawn.
On one shuttered window pane, Liu Xia had written the Chinese characters for “freedom, freedom, freedom” in a lop-sided scrawl.
Liu Xia had been battling suicidal thoughts and became hooked on medication to fight depression and hallucinations, her Berlin-based friend Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) said.
“I think it would take her at least a year to return to a normal, healthy state,” he said.
Liu Xia was dressed in multiple layers and a long-sleeved blue gown, even though the air-conditioning in her house was not turned on against the sticky summer humidity. Even through the thick fabric, her arms felt thin to the bone.
Her friend, Ye Du (野渡), said that she had been permitted to leave the apartment for a few days each month to see her brother, with a police escort. Authorities had allowed her a landline, but no mobile phone, which might have provided access to encrypted communication apps, he said.
Liu Xia said no friends were allowed into her home. She appeared surprised and unnerved to see foreign reporters, but also immediately warm and welcoming, communicating much in silence via laughs and tight hand squeezes.
She declined any photographs being taken inside the apartment. Liao said that Liu Xia had her hopes of leaving raised and dashed repeatedly since her husband’s passing.
“She’s packed up her things so many times, but the government has always acted unscrupulously. There have been endless excuses,” Liao said.
On Monday, Liu Xia’s apartment compound was serene, a normal Beijing scene — except for the five or more plainclothes men standing in constant watch in front of her building, one sporting an earpiece.
Retirees strolled through the leafy lanes with their teddy bear poodles, while a pair of women carried home shopping bags full of lychees and spring onions, toddlers in tow.
In the narrow entry to Liu Xia’s building, two dirty makeshift beds had been set up for those tasked to watch her around the clock. An elderly neighbor who had known Liu Xia and her parents for nearly two decades said he was not bothered by the security.
They helped to maintain “a quiet social order” and prevent hordes of journalists from rushing in, as had happened in the past, he said, adding that he sometimes encountered Liu while shopping or walking in the park, but had no real sympathy for her situation.
“Sure, a writer is just a writer, but you can’t interfere in your country’s interests. Every country has its rules and if you break them you have to pay up,” he said.
However, Liu Xia has been charged with no crime and told Liao in an emotional call that her only possible offense is “loving Liu Xiaobo.”
“In the long run, what political threat can she pose?” Liao asked. “She has been through so much, and been by Xiaobo’s side for so many years. No one has the right to ask her to do anything.”
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