By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 14, 2011; 11:48 AM
BEIJING - In the five weeks since imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia, the Chinese government's crackdown on dissidents and human rights lawyers appears to have eased, with most saying they can now leave their homes freely and travel abroad.
But Liu Xiaobo's wife, Liu Xia, remains under apparent house arrest and barred from any outside communication.
"I worry about my sister-in-law," said Liu Xiaoxuan, Liu Xiaobo's younger brother and a university professor in Guangzhou. "I call her family every two weeks. Her brother and mom said she's fine. It seems that she is under house arrest at her parents' home. But I can't talk to her."
From Oct. 8, when the Nobel Committee in Oslo named Liu Xiaobo as winner of the prestigious peace prize, until after the December awards ceremony at which Liu was represented by an empty chair, the Chinese government clamped down stringently on activists, dissidents and human rights lawyers. Some were confined to their homes, some were forcibly removed to the countryside, and others were placed under strict daily surveillance.
Most had their telephone and Internet lines cut, and all were prevented from leaving China, with some blocked from boarding planes at airports in Beijing and Shanghai. The clampdown drew widespread international condemnation.
But around Dec. 20, the restrictions began to ease, according to the majority of those targeted - the exceptions being Liu Xia and a handful of others.
"Freedom for most people has been gradually restored after the ceremony," said activist lawyer Teng Biao, who spent several days confined in a hotel. "The situation for us will gradually return to the way it was before Oct. 8. But it's hard to judge what the bigger trend is, which partly depends on the reaction of the international community. The concern and attention from the international community in general helps the human rights situation in China."
Some activists provided detailed firsthand accounts of how security forces harassed them or held them for weeks without allowing outside contacts.
The writer and activist Yu Jie, author of a book critical of Premier Wen Jiabao that was published in Hong Kong recently, said he was placed under house arrest with his wife from Oct. 18 to Dec. 14, with his telephone and Internet lines cut. If they needed groceries, Yu said, he would write a list and put it outside the door. A policeman outside would buy the groceries, even paying for them.
On Dec. 9, Yu said, he was driven alone to a suburban resort, his head covered with a black hood so he could not see where he was being taken. He has since voluntarily returned to his native Sichuan province, he said.
Ding Zilin, who heads a support group for relatives of students killed during the 1989 army crackdown at Tiananmen Square, and her husband, Jiang Peikun, were held for 74 days from Oct. 8 until Dec. 20. "The two of us vanished from the face of the Earth, our voices silenced and all contact with relatives, fellow activists, and friends at home and abroad cut off," they wrote in an e-mailed account of their experience titled "House Arrest in the Shadow of a 'Rising Power.' "
Ding described how for most of the time, she and her husband were confined to a house they had built in Wuxi, in Jiangsu province, and prohibited from returning to Beijing by the Wuxi office of the State Security Bureau. Their computer was seized and their telephone lines were cut, and the few family members allowed to visit them were forced to sign a "promise" not to provide them with cellphones, SIM cards or any other means of communication and not to reveal their whereabouts to anyone, they said in the article.
"We were in our own house, to be sure, but under these conditions it hardly felt like a home," they wrote. "These were the loneliest, hardest days of our lives."
During one confrontation with security officers, who were trying to take a computer from a relative's home, Ding fainted and later went to a local hospital suffering from a memory lapse. But the security officials rejected the couple's repeated requests to return to Beijing for medical treatment, the couple, who are in their 70s and 80s, said.
They were allowed to return to Beijing early on the morning of Dec. 15, but were held in an undisclosed location and not permitted to return to their home until Dec. 20, they said.
In an interview, Ding Zilin said China's clampdown over the past few months validated the Nobel Committee's decision.
"The experience of dissidents after Liu Xiaobo won the prize reflects the fact that it is 100 percent the correct choice to give Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo," Ding said. "People's legal rights are still being infringed commonly in China."
She has been detained before, for her role in the Tiananmen mothers group, but she said this was "the longest time for me to lose my freedom in the past 22 years."
Liu's brother, Liu Xiaoxuan, said: "I miss my brother. I don't know if the government will release him early in the future, or what measures they will take on him. It's very hard to predict Chinese politics."
Alluding to President Obama's upcoming meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the White House, Liu Xiaoxuan said, "Definitely, Obama will raise my brother's issue this time during Hu Jintao's visit. I have no idea how China will respond. But I don't have any expectation that it will help my brother's situation. "
Staff researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.