A photo shared on Twitter by activist Ye Du was inserted in arecent front-page story in the New York Times. The skeletal like couple (Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia) clinging onto one another will break any heart. In the photo, frail Xiaobo is pictured in his hospital pajamas and delicate Xia with shaved head in her everyday street clothes. The image in itself is so powerful that it doesn’t need any added description of the suffering they have endured for calling to usher in political change in China.
On July 13,Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo lost his battle with cancer in a hospital in Shenyang, China. The news of his death was followed by an outpouring of love and condolence in social media.Some wondered who Liu Xiaobo is. There was a post on Facebook from a friend of mine. It was an excerpt from a chapter of a book titled “Liu Xiaobo’s Three Refusals: No enemies, No hatred, No lies,” written by Orville Schell and John Delury. That in short is an apt description of what Liu Xiaobo stood for. Since 1989, Xiaobo had spent most of his life under guard in China.It is not a real surprise that many in the young generation did not know about Liu Xiaobo. After he won the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 2010, there was hardly any update on Xiaobo that came out of China.
The couple’s life story doesn’t seem to be taken out of the pages of a fairy tale romance with a happily ever after. But it remains symbolically powerful in the face of inconceivable adversity. Under unusual and hard circumstances, their love connection has survived defying all odds. They have spent most of their married life apart – Xiaobo at first in a Chinese concentration camp, and later in a prison. While together,the government has always been present in their lives as a third wheel. Before his arrest, as a teacher and activist,Liu Xiaobo had lent his voice to a call for democracy. Both Xiaobo and Xia have paid a heavy price because of his moral and civic obligation to come to the aid of those who were suffering and did not have a voice.
Liu Xia was put under house arrest after Xiaobo was awarded the Peace Prize. He (Xiaobo) was unable to collect it as he was serving an eleven-year-old jail sentence for co-authoring a pro-democracy manifesto named “Charter 08.”The charter called for respect of “basic universal values,” to honour human rights, equality and to have multiparty democracy. The government viewed him a “criminal” who was in violation with state subversion laws.
The Nobel Prize elevated Xiaobo to an international stature. The picture of Xiaobo’s empty chair during the ceremony in Oslo became a symbol of oppression and violation of his basic right as he wasn’t allowed to go and collect his prize. Through it all Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia had remained steadfast in their love for one another. Xiaobo, a prolific writer, and Xia, a poet, have exchanged hundreds of letters while apart. Some of the letters give a glimpse of what gave them the courage to fight on. Their unbreakable spirit was affixed in faith, love and poetry.
There was always hope of Xiaobo returning to Xia after his prison term ends. The confinement in a Beijing flat has somewhat broken Xia physically and psychologically over the years as she wasn’t allowed to visit her husband in prison.It was reported that she became clinically depressed. But the abiding commitment of their lovethat they once had pledged to one another was unbreakable and it got them through the dark days of separation.
In the recent weeks the Xiaobo story was dominating the international news as he wanted to be treated for his cancer either in Germany or USA. The Chinese government didn’t agree to let him go saying he was getting the best care possible in China. Footage released by the hospitals hows Xiaobo was lying still and frail in a metal bed surrounded by a team of doctors. The government had invited a German and American doctor to examine Xiaobo and both said he could travel to another country for further treatment.
While Xiaobo was fighting for his life, his supporters were fighting the Chinese government to defend his legacy.Some of his activist friends in exile repeatedly had tried to reach his family without any luck. One tried to visit him but was turned away. They have expressed outrage saying the government is denying him “the right of the individual to live, speak and remember, free of authoritarian control and censorship.”
“More than 34,000 people– most of them in China – recently signed an open letter demanding his freedom and his right to choose his own medical care,” wrote Xiaorong Li, co-editor of “Charter 08” in a tribute. From Hong Kong to Sydney, people were holding candlelight vigil in front of Chinese embassies.The rights activists and everyday citizens held up placard with writings such as:“Dissidence doesn’t deserve death,”went viral in social media. Human rights groups and some foreign governments including Taiwan had called for Xiaobo and Xia to be allowed to travel for treatment.
Xiaobo’s friends and supporters were optimistic that external pressure might work. The government was fearful that if he was let out for treatment, he might talk. Because of China’s superpower status, the western countries were very cautious about bringing up Xiaobo to the Chinese government. During the recent G20 Summit in Hamburg none of the western leaders asked Xi Jinping to free Xiaobo on humanitarian reasons.
From the get go the couple’s love survived the labour camp and prison life because of resilience, determination and hope to get the government out of their marriage one day. In the beginning, Xia was permitted one visit a month to go see her husband. She unfailingly took the 1,000 miles return journey from Beijing. “The train to the concentration camp,” she once wrote in a poem, “Sobbing pass and running over my body/ Yet I still couldn’t hold your hand.”
In 2009, in a public statement made to the court Xiaobo wrote in reference to Xia, “I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison.”
The letters Xiaobo and Xia wrote to each other with powerful words of deep love indicate that metaphorically they were inseparable. The persuasive words will tell a triumphant tale of love and survival in turbulent times.
The writer is a columnist based in Maryland, USA