Quietly but persistently, the Trump administration has been pressing the Chinese government to allow Liu Xia, widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, to leave China, where she is being held against her will. Senior U.S. officials regard China’s ongoing mistreatment of Liu and her family as human rights abuses that simply can’t be ignored.
The regime of Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is obsessed with the possibility that Congress will pass legislation renaming the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.” Chinese officials have demanded in recent senior-level interactions that the Trump administration bury the bill, to no avail.
The issue now threatens to become a major irritant in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Neither side wants it to escalate to that level, but unless the Chinese government responds to U.S. and international calls to free Liu, there’s little to stop Congress from moving forward.
The White House stepped up its advocacy on behalf of Liu Xiaobo earlier this year, as the poet and human rights activist died slowly from liver cancer while in Chinese government custody. Top White House officials raised his case with Chinese counterparts during President Trump’s trip to Hamburg this month, a senior administration official said. Liu had been imprisoned since 2009.
After Liu’s death the following week, White House officials repeatedly raised the case of Liu Xia’s well-being, pressing Chinese authorities to allow her to travel abroad. The strategy has been to keep the advocacy quiet rather than publicly shame the Chinese government, according to the official.
Liu Xia has been under house arrest without charge or trial since 2010, although the Chinese government denies that her freedom is restricted. In 2013, she was allowed to witness the trial of her brother Liu Hui, after which she shouted to reporters, “I am not free. If they tell you I’m free, tell them I’m not free.”
Meanwhile, this month top Chinese officials have repeatedly pressed top Trump officials to prevent Congress from passing the “Liu Xiaobo Plaza” legislation, introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). In a July 17 phone call, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi raised the issue with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to internal notes of the call I obtained.
Yang urged the Trump administration to influence key members of Congress and publicly promise a presidential veto. Yang told Tillerson this was a critical moment in U.S.-Chinese relations and renaming the plaza would seriously affect Chinese cooperation on major issues. Tillerson told Yang the Chinese government should engage with Washington on Liu’s case.
In an interview, Cruz rejected Beijing’s objections and said he is in discussions with Senate leadership to move the bill forward. “I’m glad to hear it’s got their attention,” he said. “I’ll be even more glad when they change their conduct and stop being gross human-rights abusers.”
The bill is modeled on a Cold War example, when in 1984 Congress acted to rename the street in front of the Russian Embassy for Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Sakharov was arrested and condemned to internal exile from 1980 until 1986.
For the Chinese leadership, international recognition of Liu Xiaobo’s life or achievements is seen as interference in China’s internal affairs and a direct challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.
Liu was the co-author and first signer of Charter 08, a manifesto signed by hundreds of Chinese activists and intellectuals calling for freedom, equality, human rights, democracy and constitutional government in China. Based on that, he was arrested for “inciting subversion of state power.”
“Anything that would carry his name would be seen as a constant, daily, in-your-face challenge to China and to Xi Jinping,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is no tolerance in China under Xi Jinping for this kind of dissent. That is what Liu Xiaobo represented.”
The Chinese government went so far as to cremate Liu’s body and scatter his ashes in the ocean so there would be no gravesite to memorialize him. Chinese government censors work to erase references to him on China’s Internet.
Xi can’t be seen as giving in to U.S. pressure on issues related to Chinese Communist Party rule, Glaser said. Still, there is precedent for China to show some flexibility on Liu Xia’s case.
In 2012, Beijing allowed human-rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng to come to the United States with his family, after intense negotiations with the Obama administration. Liu is not a dissident, just the widow of one, making her persecution even more egregious.
If the Trump administration keeps up its pressure, a negotiation could ensue. But as long as Liu remains a prisoner of the Chinese state, international calls for her release and actions to honor her husband’s legacy will only increase.
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