Devotion amid despair: the great contemporary love story of Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Devotion amid despair: the great contemporary love story of Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo” was written by Tom Phillips in Beijing and Tania Branigan, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 12th July 2017 02.46 UTC

Not long after Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail, he discovered two items had vanished from his correspondence with his wife. To their astonishment and amusement, the couple realised the only letters censors had blocked were the love poems that each had penned to the other.

Perhaps authorities feared they were arousing and would get the inmate too fired up, Liu Xia later joked. But there was nothing funny about the state’s unrelenting interference in even the most intimate parts of their life – nor about the unchecked force of their devotion in the face of every obstacle.

Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer in May, the Nobel peace laureate is at the centre of a geopolitical tug-of-war with western governments urging China to show “humanity” by letting him travel overseas for treatment and Beijing accusing the world of meddling in its “domestic affairs”. Images – the first of him since police took him from the couple’s flat in Beijing over eight years ago – show a skeletal figure.

Friends, however, say it is a secondary, yet in some ways even more disturbing tragedy that troubles them most: that of the dissident writer’s wife, the poet Liu Xia.

“She has been physically and mentally destroyed,” said Ye Du, a poet who has known her for over a decade.

Liu Xia has never been accused of an offence, still less tried or convicted: “But when you live with such a person, even if you don’t care about politics, politics will care about you,” she once told the Guardian.

She has been almost entirely cut off from the outside world, to prevent her speaking out about her husband. There is growing concern that – unless the couple are allowed to leave the country together – her invisible prison will endure long after his death.

“In a way Xiaobo chose his life and … has been living exactly as he thought he should,” said Jean-Philippe Béja, an academic and friend of 25 years. “But for his wife, for his friends, for his family, it is different.

“Xiaobo chose his work. Liu Xia chose Xiaobo. And they have taken revenge on her, which is absolutely terrible.”

Liu Xia was a civil servant and a budding young poet when the couple first met in the mid-1980s; they were married to other people, but part of a bohemian intellectual circle which often gathered at her home.

The couple in 2002.
The couple in 2002. Photograph: HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

Liu Xiaobo’s biographer, Yu Jie, portrays a brilliant if abrasive young intellectual known, back then, as an inveterate womaniser who found time for “hanky panky” even as mass demonstrations gripped Beijing in the spring of 1989. His marriage broke up while he was in prison for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests; hers ended too. After he emerged, they fell deeply in love: “I found all the beauty in the world in this one woman,” he once said. “They are a perfect couple … a spiritual match,” says Mo Zhixu, an activist and friend.

By embracing the relentlessly outspoken democracy campaigner, Liu Xia was also committing herself to a future of trauma and uncertainty. It was one of the reasons they chose not to have children: “Having a father in prison is a cruel thing to make a child go through,” she told a friend. They wed when the author was serving three years in a labour camp, so that she would be allowed to visit him. “I want to marry that enemy of the state!” she insisted, according to Yu Jie’s biography.

Yet she told friends: “I’m not Xiaobo’s flunky.” He exulted in her talents, boasting to friends about her poetry and artwork. Even in happy times, though, the pressures were constant: “He was followed all the time. Sometimes he couldn’t get out of his home. When he went anywhere they were behind him … It was a really difficult life,” said Beja.

Then, at 11pm on Monday 8 December 2008, Liu Xia heard a loud knock at their door. A huddle of security agents entered, brandishing a warrant straight out of The Trial: “Suspected of the crime of _________,” the document said.

Three hundred Chinese intellectuals and activists were poised to publish Charter 08, a political manifesto calling for peaceful political reform and – crucially – the end of one-party rule in China. Liu had not initiated it, but co-authored it, gathered signatures for it and, say friends, volunteered to take the fall hoping his international fame would spare him too harsh a punishment.

“I knew there’d be big trouble,” Liu Xia later said; she had tried to dissuade him from participating. “I could only do what I’d done in the past: patiently wait for calamity to descend.”

On Christmas Day 2009 – a date chosen to minimise international media coverage – the activist was jailed for 11 years for inciting subversion, and sent to a prison in the frigid north-eastern province of Liaoning.

When the Guardian met Liu Xia around that time, she might have passed for a grad student despite her 49 years: a slight figure with a shaven head and a cigarette between her fingers. She had a luminous presence; the definition of grace under pressure. Her serenity came not from religious faith, she said, but from all her years of reading and experiencing the lives of others.

At the same time she had an impish smile and wry sense of humour, joking about the couple’s life together, his love of her cooking and even about the moment of his detention. It was easy to see why Liu Xiaobo had tumbled into love with this woman.

But in 2010, her imprisoned husband was awarded the Nobel peace prize. China’s retribution was swift and unflinching: placing Liu Xia under house arrest and cutting off her telephone and internet connections. She was almost completely isolated from the world, living under around-the-clock guard, and allowed only the occasional visit to her parents, the shops or her husband in prison, always trailed by police.

Two years later, foreign journalists managed to sneak into her apartment briefly: “I don’t keep track of the days anymore,” the frail-looking poet told them, trembling uncontrollably and crying.

“I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.”

Friends were horrified by the transformation of a once effervescent woman: “Will you only be happy if you drive Liu Xia crazy, or drive her to death?” one asked authorities in an emotional plea on her behalf.

In 2014 the poet was reported to have suffered a heart attack. Last year her father died; in April this year she lost her mother. She told Ye Du she was taking medication to help her unwind. “When I’m able to sleep properly it means I don’t need to think about or see this world of pain,” she said.

And then, in June, the latest hammer blow: the discovery that Liu Xiaobo was terminally ill.

Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is attended to by his wife Liu Xia in a hospital in China.
Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is attended to by his wife Liu Xia in a hospital in China. Photograph: AP

“Being family to a political prisoner is harder than being a political prisoner,” the author himself once wrote. “In a society without conscience run by a government without limit, it’s the families of those who fight that suffer – the possibility of being separated at any moment, the surveillance and lack of privacy, the pressure all around you to become indifferent, to forget.”

Liu Xia has never seen herself as political; yet she has resisted that pressure. She has been staunch in standing by her husband and in insisting that he has done nothing wrong.

“I think Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo are writing a great contemporary love story,” said Ye Du.

Like many friends, he suspects Liu Xiaobo’s determination to escape China – after a lifetime refusing to abandon his country and his cause – is more about rescuing her from persecution than the hope that treatment abroad might help extend his own life. “Liu Xia has suffered for the sake of Liu Xiaobo’s dream. And now Liu Xiaobo has given up his insistence [on staying in China] for the sake of Liu Xia,” Ye Du said.

“I think many people find it hard to understand how they have kept faith in their love despite being tortured by an authoritarian regime … They are amazing.”

It is a devotion memorialised in the statement Liu Xiaobo prepared for his trial back in 2009.

“Even if I were crushed into powder,” he wrote, addressing the love of his life, “I would still use my ashes to embrace you.”

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen

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