'Liu Xiaobo knew that he would pay with his life'

A good friend of Liu Xiaobo, human rights activist Tienchi Martin-Liao long fought to obtain the right for him to leave China for Germany. She tells DW how Germany and Europe now have an important role to play.

The Chinese-German human rights activist Tienchi Martin-Liao is president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center - an office she took on as a substitute for Liu Xiabo. She also published his writings and, after the Nobel Prize Laureate's arrest, she remained in close contact with his wife, Liu Xia.

DW reached her shortly after the news of his death on Thursday.

DW: Just like Carl von Ossietzky In 1938, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo died under unbearable conditions, as a prisoner in hospital...

Tienchi Martin-Liao: For Chinese authorities, he remains a criminal. His family is apparently not even allowed to find a grave for him. The few people who dared go to the hospital to visit him have all been arrested. This is such barbarism - I have no words for it. I really can't describe this - it's worse than under the Nazis.

Politics | 14.07.2017
Tienchi Martin Liao

Tienchi Martin Liao leads the Independent Chinese PEN Center

What do you believe his death means for his wife, Liu Xia, who's been under house arrest for many years?

I believe we need to do everything possible to save her, otherwise she will not survive. They will isolate her. They will turn her life in such a hell that she will not be able to live much longer. I am fully convinced of this. The Chinese authorities know, of course, that Liu Xia, the person closest to Liu Xiabo, knows more than anyone else.

She only found out recently how sick he was. She spent the last days with him, since June 26. I couldn't tell if they were both surveilled day and night; there were certainly moments where he could whisper information to her, which is why I'm sure that she knows quite a few things. That's why the government will not let her go. She will permanently stay under surveillance, like a dangerous criminal.

Read more: China's Nobel Peace Prize winning dissident Liu Xiaobo dies

Were you in contact with her? 

Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xia at the hospital, at Liua Xiaobo's (left) side

No, all forms of communication with her have been cut off since June 26.

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Do you still hope that she can come to Germany?

It really depends. Merkel's government has been diplomatically quiet until last week. She probably asked Xi Jinping behind closed doors to provide a better treatment for the Nobel Prize Laureate or to give him permission to travel. But that didn't change anything. Now it's time to use all possible means to free Liu Xia. This woman didn't commit any crime - she shouldn't be imprisoned!

What did China lose with Liu Xiaobo's death?

Through his death, China can no longer be seen as a reliable partner. This cruel, anti-humanitarian treatment shows that China is an unreliable, unpredictable, uncivilized regime. I'm aware that Europe is trying to find a new partner beyond the US with Trump's new world policies, and that's why it's turning to China. But with this act, we can see the regime's true position.

Read more: Opinion: The other China

Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin Veranstaltung zu Liu Xiaobo Tienchi Martin-Liao

Tienchin Martin-Liao at an event during the International Literature Festival in Berlin in 2016

If we continue to do business and develop projects with China as if nothing happened, then that's a betrayal of all morality and humanity, and Europe can no longer claim to be a civilized society. Universal human rights cannot be denied - but China has once again proven how far away it stands from our universal values.

This would have been an opportunity for Xi Jinping: If he had released Liu Xiaobo, he would have gained the confidence and recognition of other countries. But he and his party missed this opportunity.

Do people in China have access to Liu Xiaobo's writings?

They are not widespread, but it is possible to find them in intellectual circles. I hope that people will have the courage to continue to say: "You can't do that with us!" In my opinion, Liu Xiaobo was unique: He knew that he would pay with his freedom and his life if he spoke freely. But he did it nevertheless. I hope that this will inspire his friends and colleagues and the younger generation to stand up and say: "Not with us! We did not commit any crime and you cannot arrest us for only reading Liu Xiaobo's writings!"


A lifetime of fighting

Liu Xiaobo spent decades demanding more democracy in China. He was born in the city of Changchun in the northeast of the country in 1955, and eventually moved to study in Beijing, where he started lecturing in 1984.


A veteran of Tiananmen

By 1989, Xiaobo was a visiting scholar at several Western universities. However, he returned to Beijing to support the Tiananmen protests and was jailed after the bloody crackdown. He served two more prison terms in the following decade.


Charter 08

In 2008, Xiaobo co-authored a document known as "Charter 08" which called for a free, democratic and constitutional state in China. He was arrested in 2009 for undermining state power.


Yellow ribbons

His trial on subversion charges took place at the the No. 1 Intermediate People's Court. Liu's supporters showed their solidarity by tying yellow ribbons to barriers outside the court.


Protests in Hong Kong

Liu's arrest and the subsequent 11-year sentence sparked protests in Hong Kong and mainland China. Chinese authorities banned diplomats from the US and other western countries from attending the trial.


Nobel Prize for a prisoner

Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. His chair remained empty during the ceremony in Oslo, as he was already in jail.


Family under attack

The dissident's wife Liu Xia supported her husband and continued to call for his release after his arrest. However, her brother Liu Hui was also arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2013, which Liu Xia decried as a warning to the whole family.


Through the eyes of Liu Xia

Liu Xia is a photographer who has seen her work exhibited in countries around the world, including Germany. In this undated photo, her husband is shown with a puppet on his shoulder - a common motive in her work.


Dying from cancer

Liu was diagnosed with liver cancer earlier this year, prompting authorities to move him to a hospital in June. Western leaders urged China to allow the dissident to be treated outside the country, but Beijing refused. Liu passed away on July 13, after his family refused to have him connected to a ventilation machine.