FOR AN example of gratuitous cruelty in the service of 21st-century totalitarianism, listen to the sob-choked voice of China’s Liu Xia. The widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and dissident Liu Xiaobo, Ms. Liu was recently recorded by a friend as she described her despair at being denied sanctuary in Germany and subjected to a seemingly endless continuation of the house arrest she has endured since 2010 — even though her husband died 10 months ago and she has never been charged with a crime.

“If I can’t leave, I’ll die in my home,” Ms. Liu told her friend Liao Yiwu, a writer who lives in Germany, in an April 30 conversation. “It’s easier to die than live. Using death to defy could not be any simpler for me.” In an earlier call, an excerpt of which Mr. Liao posted online, “Liu Xia was crying non-stop,” he said.

China punished Liu Xiaobo for his advocacy of peaceful democratic change in China with multiple imprisonments, including an 11-year sentence he was serving when he died last July, at 61, of liver cancer. Ms. Liu, 57, a poet and artist, has, if anything, been treated even more unconscionably. She has been confined to her home for more than seven years without access to a phone or computer, even as the government portrays her as a free citizen. Meanwhile, her brother was prosecuted and sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges in 2013. Mr. Liao says Ms. Liu, not surprisingly, has suffered from clinical depression for several years.

The regime compounded the abuse by encouraging false hopes of freedom. Germany has offered Ms. Liu harbor and medical treatment, and Mr. Liao and other friends said security officials repeatedly promised Ms. Liu that she would be allowed to leave the country. First she was told to wait until after last fall’s Communist Party Congress; and then until after the meeting of Beijing’s rubber-stamp legislature in March, where Xi Jinping consolidated his position as de facto dictator for life. She waited, while the Germans and her supporters obeyed the regime’s demands that they remain silent.

“On April 1, before Liu Xia’s 57th birthday, the German Ambassador called her to convey Chancellor [Angela] Merkel’s special respects, and invited her to play badminton in Berlin before long,” Mr. Liao recounted. Yet five weeks later, the siege on her home remains unbroken, prompting the despair she expressed in the phone calls. Some of her frustration seemed directed at the German Embassy, which, she said, “keep[s] on asking me to do these documents over and over again,” even though she lacked the means to do so.

The real fault lies with a regime that appears bent on crushing the spirit of a woman simply because her husband was recognized for what the Nobel committee called “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” That regime claims to offer a new model of greatness for other nations to emulate. But how great can it be if it so fears a 57-year-old poet who only wants to live out her life in peace?

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