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Wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner talks about daily struggle

October 8, 2010

The prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China". Liu Xia, his wife, has always been by his side.

Liu Xia has become her jailed husband's only link to the outside world
Liu Xia has become her jailed husband's only link to the outside worldImage: Mathias Bölinger

Liu Xia looks briefly around the lobby of a big Beijing hotel before sitting down in an armchair. In her black Chinese shirt, glasses and cropped hair, she stands out amid the business people and tourists.

Liu Xia is not allowed to receive visitors. She has been under constant surveillance since her husband's arrest. She is greeted by a police officer each time she leaves the house.

She orders a double espresso and lights up a cigarette. "I can only visit him, bring him books and write to him. They have allowed him to read and write for a year now. And he's been allowed to see the sun twice a day for a year and a half. He is also allowed to go outside and move around – one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon."

Thorn in the government's side since 1989

Liu Xiaobo has been a thorn in the government's side ever since, as a young academic, he joined students on a hunger strike on Tiananmen Square just days before the army was sent in to crush the mass protests.

In 1989, Liu Xiaobo joined pro-democracy protesters on a hunger strike
In 1989, Liu Xiaobo joined pro-democracy protesters on a hunger strikeImage: picture-alliance / dpa

He was arrested soon after the brutal crackdown in 1989 and was jailed twice in the next decade. His wife, whom he had met on Beijing's literary scene in the early 1980s, says the pressure and the constant police summons have become part of their everyday life. She says it is a life marked by fear and hopelessness.

"When Xiaobo was still at home, I lived a stranger's life. Not my own. I read a lot, all kinds of books, but I only had four or five real friends, my old friends, in my real life. I had no mobile phone and no computer. I had the impression that everything outside had nothing to do with me. I lived the life of another."

It is rare that one gets to hear about the fate of the relatives of dissidents. Zeng Jinyan, the wife of AIDS activist and human rights lawyer Hu Jia, has blogged about her life under house arrest. The wife of another human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has disappeared, was briefly in the news last year, after managing to escape to Thailand with her children by trekking through the jungle.

Husband's only link to outside world

Liu Xia would prefer to avoid the public but she is now her husband’s most important link to the outside world.

Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail for his involvement in "Charter 08" that calls for political reforms
Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail for his involvement in "Charter 08" that calls for political reformsImage: picture alliance/dpa

He was jailed a third time after co-organizing the "Charter 08" petition that calls for political reforms, freedom of expression and civil rights. The petition was signed by over 10,000 people on the Internet. But shortly after it was published, the police were at the door again.

"Many would have given up in his place but Xiaobo is extremely determined. If he believes in a goal then he will pursue it even if he knows he will never attain it. He is incredibly stubborn," his wife says.

But the sentence of 11 years in jail, pronounced one year after his arrest, was tough, even by Chinese standards, and a harsh blow.

Maintaining a sense of normality

Liu Xia is allowed to visit him in a jail 500 kilometers northeast of Beijing once a month. "I told Xiaobo that he had to lead his life in his imagination whereas I would have to live in reality. I have learnt to use a mobile phone and a computer. Now I have to meet people. Last year, I spoke more than in the 10 previous years."

However, she does not only lobby for her husband - she still paints, takes photographs and writes poems.

"It’s very important for me to do this," she explains. "I also think that when Xiaobo gets out of jail he will want me to have done this, not only talked about him for 10 years. He will see my works as a sign that I tried to keep my life under control as much as possible. He will see that I managed to maintain a certain sense of normality."

As she pronounces these words, her voice falters. She can't keep back her tears. Quickly, she grabs a tissue and wipes her eyes, apologizing and saying this does not usually happen.

Author: Mathias Boelinger / act
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein