BEIJING— Liu Xia left China, but she may never really leave it behind.
The bespectacled Chinese poet, who spent the better part of eight years under house arrest while her husband, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, died in jail, flew to exile on Tuesday. She was photographed just after her Finnair flight touched down on foreign soil. She was beaming. She looked free.
Her husband, Liu Xiaobo, was a writer and activist who spent his life in and out of Chinese prisons for criticizing the Chinese Communist Party. In 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his role in publishing a call for political reform in China. The next year, he became the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — and a year ago Friday, he became the first Nobel laureate to die in confinement since the Nazi era.
For Liu Xia, who spent the last year in the claustrophobic confines of her Beijing apartment, gawked at and guarded, exile is a welcome outcome. Human-rights groups and foreign governments celebrated her departure. In Beijing, a small group of not-currently-in-jail thinkers and dissidents offered a toast: “May the blessings of her native land follow her to a free nation, forever!”
But her exile will not be uncomplicated. She wanted to leave China in the company of her brother, Liu Hui, so that Chinese authorities could not use threats against him to reach her. It seems Chinese officials did not agree to that plan. She arrived in Germany without him.
This week in China news provided two reminders that for those fleeing China, leaving the country is not enough. The Chinese Communist Party continues to hold the families of political exiles and immigrants hostage, securing their silence with the implied — or direct — promise of harm.
In an investigation for BuzzFeed published Monday, reporter Megha Rajagopalan documented Chinese efforts to coerce ethnic Uighurs who have left China into spying on their peers — or else.
The story, which was based on interviews with Uighurs living outside China, outlined how Chinese state security personnel approach and pressure exiles. “Every person interviewed for this article said state security operatives told them their families could be sent to, or would remain in, internment camps for 'reeducation' if they did not comply with their demands," the story read.
Though targeting family is not a new tactic, the technique has been enhanced by an uptick in surveillance in China and beyond. “The [Chinese] police seem to increasingly have the ability to maintain complete information on all Uighurs living overseas,” Omer Kanat, director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, told BuzzFeed.
That has people worried about Liu. Having survived years of de-facto house arrest (she was never charged with a crime but was nonetheless guarded and relentlessly watched) she knows exactly how China’s vast security apparatus works —and that’s why she hoped to leave with her little brother.
There’s good reason to believe China will target her sibling. Her brother, Liu Hui, was convicted of fraud in 2013 and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. A New York Times report from that time called the verdict “extraordinary for its severity” and noted that the sentencing was “widely viewed as an instance of political persecution.” Liu Hui was later released on medical parole — a decision that can no doubt be reversed.
Jerome Cohen, faculty director of the New York University U.S.-Asia Law Institute and leading expert on Chinese law, compared her fate to being transferred from de-facto house arrest to a new type of prison.
“Liu Xia is now physically free but still enslaved mentally since her brother Liu Hui has been intentionally kept hostage,” Cohen wrote on his personal blog.
“Her release is a half-way house toward freedom, really a new form of restriction, another ingenious type of detention-equivalent administered by a [People’s Republic of China] that spawns new types of detention almost every day.”