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Concern for fate of Liu Xiaobo's widow builds

Wife of Noble Peace Prize laureate Liu Xia out of contact since orchestrated funeral

Activists put up posters "In search of Liu Xia," widow of Liu Xiaobo, in Hong Kong on Aug. 12. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG -- Aug. 13 marks a month from the death of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and long-time Chinese democracy activist.

While people around the globe continue to mourn his passing, attention is now on the whereabouts of his widow Liu Xia. Even though she has not committed any offense besides being the wife of an "enemy of the state," she has not been seen publicly since the cremation of her husband and the dispersal of his ashes to sea on July 15.

"Missing person -- Name: Liu Xia." A group of human rights activists in Hong Kong began putting up posters with her portrait on Saturday, starting with a busy commercial district in Kowloon. The poster describes the 56-year-old widow of Liu Xiaobo as "a poet, an artist, and a photographer" with "short hair, wearing glasses and gaunt." She was originally slender, but her time under house arrest in her Beijing residence without warrant since her husband won the Nobel prize in 2010 has apparently taken a toll on her health.

"Liu Xia is not a criminal," Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran human rights activist in Hong Kong and an organizer of the latest campaign, said on Saturday. "She was just married to Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner," He, like many other supporters, believes that Liu Xia has been under "forced disappearance by the Communist Party" and worries that "this will be damaging for her health because she has been under big stress from the past since Liu Xiaobo was in prison."

Veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan, with microphone, calls on people in Hong Kong to be aware of Liu Xia's plight. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Prior to the awarding of the prize, Liu Xiaobo was held in custody four times, with the last one being an 11-year jail term slapped on him in 2009 for co-authoring political manifesto "Charter 08," which called for rule of law, an independent judiciary, respect for human rights and an end to one-party rule in China.

Calls for action

The call to set Liu Xia free has been voiced across the world. Forty-two organizations, coming from the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, and more, issued a joint statement on Sunday demanding Beijing to "stop the illegal house arrest, harassment, and surveillance" of her. Signatories included the Freedom for Liu Xiaobo Action Group, which initiated an online call for a global memorial on the seventh day after his death, and the Tiananmen Mothers Movement, organized by victims of the 1989 June Fourth crackdown in Beijing. The seventh day after a person's death, called touqi in Mandarin and tauchat in Cantonese, is a traditional day of mourning for Chinese.During the Tiananmen crackdown, Liu Xiaobo negotiated with the authorities to evacuate as many people as possible before violence erupted, though many others were eventually killed by the military.

The joint statement also demanded the immediate release of people who mourned Liu Xiaobo in mainland China. There are at least six people under criminal detention in Jiangmen, Guangdong Province, -- for holding a seaside memorial service on the seventh day after Liu's death. The statement said the "hypersensitivity and absurdity of the Chinese government have been revealed by this series of guilt-by-association cases surrounding Liu Xiaobo."

People in Hong Kong were able to mourn Liu Xiaobo's death at a memorial on July 19, the seventh day after his passing, but in the adjacent Chinese province of Guangdong, mourners were arrested. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

So where is Liu Xia? According to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based organization ran by a longtime activist Frank Lu Siqing who has been closely monitoring the situation, she is suspected to have been kept away from her home in Beijing by the authorities, but her exact whereabouts are unclear.

However, Lu has been reporting that she has been under tight surveillance with her brother Liu Hui, according to his contacts with her relatives. Liu Xia is not allowed to use her mobile phone and has not been seen since video footage of her on a boat releasing her husband's ashes into the sea was released by the authorities on July 15.

On top of the disappearance of Liu Xia and arrests of mourners in Guangdong, Beijing seems to be further tightening control with regard to Liu Xiaobo. On Friday, Howard Lam Tsz-kin, a Democratic Party member in Hong Kong, said he was whisked away on a busy street in Kowloon on Thursday afternoon, violently interrogated by a group of Mandarin-speaking men in an unknown location, and later left lying on a beach in northeastern Hong Kong.

Lam told reporters on Friday that the interrogation had centered on Liu Xia. He had secured a signed photograph of Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi for Liu Xiaobo, who was a staunch fan of the Barcelona player. Lam also revealed that he had received a phone call three days earlier warning him not to hand over the photo to Liu Xia.

A police investigation is ongoing, but suspicion is mounting in Hong Kong over the possible involvement of mainland security personnel in the territory, reinforcing the memory of the abduction of booksellers who were dealing with works critical of the mainland authorities.

The Hong Kong government's announcement that it would lease an area to the Chinese authorities for law enforcement at the terminus of a high-speed rail link to southern China on July 26 is also adding to the wariness over breaches to the "one country, two systems" arrangement of governance in the territory.

Under the government's controversial co-location proposal, mainland officers will be allowed to enforce Beijing law, including immigration and criminal measures, in West Kowloon station. The officers will also have jurisdiction over train cabins and platforms.


Lee Cheuk-yan sees the purpose of the violence against Lam "is to make the people of Hong Kong fearful of any action on Liu Xia or any action against the government of Hong Kong." Lee said that "when you look at [what happened to] Howard Lam, we have been threatened even without the co-location, and imagine what happens if there are security people stationed in West Kowloon?"

In the mainland, a new crackdown on cyberspace is on the way. The Cyberspace Administration of China said on Friday that it has initiated simultaneous probes into Tencent Holdings' WeChat mobile chat service, Sina's Weibo microblogging service and Baidu's Tieba forums.

This is based on suspected violations of cybersecurity legislation which took effect in June. The three services have a total of 1.35 billion users, with much overlap due to people who use more than one.

In China, views expressed in cyberspace hold much sway over public opinion because traditional mass media are viewed as a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party and have little influence. Along with an apparent effort to contain opinion and information that could hinder the consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping in the run up to the Communist Party congress in the fall, the government has been expending a great deal of resources on containing posts by those seeking to mourn Liu Xiaobo since his death.

"I think Xi Jinping wants to [put] everything under his control, even the internet, any organizations [by the people], and any movement for rights, he will try to suppress," said Lee Cheuk-yan.

According to the Chinese government, Liu Xiaobo is a criminal and Liu Xia is a free person. Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters after the death of Liu Xiaobo that Liu Xia is entitled to "all legal rights as a Chinese citizen."

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