BEIJING — For friends and admirers of writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, his death Thursday is a dark crossroads.
To many, Liu represented hope for a freer China with more room for dissent. Now that he is gone, they said, that dream looks more distant.
“He fought for freedom and democracy for more than 30 years, becoming a monument to morality and justice and a source of inspiration,” said Wen Kejian, a fellow writer.
“His spiritual legacy will never fade away,” he added. “The torch he carried high will be passed on.”
Liu, who passed up opportunities to leave China for a life in exile, had been in a Chinese prison since his conviction for “subversion” in 2009.
In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights.” Since he could not attend the ceremony, he was represented by an empty chair.
The Nobel committee said in a statement Thursday that the Chinese government bears “heavy responsibility” for his death.
“He was truly a prisoner of conscience and he paid the highest possible price for his relentless struggle,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement.
“Liu Xiaobo was a representative of ideas that resonate with millions of people all over the world, even in China. These ideas cannot be imprisoned and will never die,” Reiss-Anderson added.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Liu’s death a “tragic passing” and noted his work “promoting peaceful democratic reform.” Tillerson’s statement also urged Chinese authorities to allow Liu’s widow, Liu Xia, to be freed from house arrest and allowed the option to leave China.
“In his fight for freedom, equality, and constitutional rule in China, Liu Xiaobo embodied the human spirit that the Nobel Prize rewards. In his death, he has only reaffirmed the Nobel Committee’s selection,” said Tillerson in a statement.
On June 25, officials announced that Liu had late-stage liver cancer and was being moved to a hospital, starting a macabre battle about where and how he should be treated — and where and how he would die.
His friends said that Liu and his wife wanted to travel to Germany or the United States for treatment. Doctors from both countries cleared it, but Chinese officials insisted he was too sick to leave.
As he lay dying, foreign governments, including the United States, joined rights groups and Chinese dissidents-in-exile in calling for his release. The government rebuffed their pleas, saying it was an internal matter.
“Even as Liu Xiaobo’s illness worsened, the Chinese government continued to isolate him and his family, and denied him freely choosing his medical treatment,” said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“The Chinese government’s arrogance, cruelty, and callousness are shocking — but Liu’s struggle for a rights-respecting, democratic China will live on.”
Hu Jia, a fellow dissident who counts Liu as a close friend, said the scuffle over his final days proved some of what Liu had been saying all along: that the ruling Communist Party could be “coldblooded and cruel.”
What he most admired, Hu said, was that Liu never stopped resisting but that he always resisted peacefully. That would be his legacy, Hu said.
Chinese authorities, who have kept Liu out of the public eye for years, said little about his death Thursday. At a news conference at the hospital where he died, doctors defended the care Liu was given and the decision to keep him there.
Strict censorship has stopped many ordinary Chinese from following his case, though some still tried to post about Liu online. In an effort to stop people from grieving publicly, censors blocked the candle emoji.
Elsewhere in the region, his death was greeted with open sorrow and outrage.
In Hong Kong, people gathered outside the China Liaison Office, the central government’s outpost in the semiautonomous city, to light candles and honor Liu.
Nathan Law, a local pro-democracy activist, read from the statement Liu prepared ahead of his 2009 trial and which was read in full the night he won the Nobel. “I have no enemies and no hatred,” it read.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted a tribute to the man she called a “tireless advocate for human rights.”
“In 2010, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize In the ceremony, the attention of the whole world was on the empty chair,” she said. “Sadly, he will never have a chance to claim that seat.”
Luna Lin in Beijing and Carol Morello in Kuwait City contributed to this report.