The Nobel-winning writer and human rights activist died of liver cancer Thursday evening while in custody at a hospital in Shenyang in northeastern China. He was 61.
Liu’s funeral was held Saturday morning in Shenyang and attended by his family members and close friends, according to a city government spokesman. He said Liu’s body had been cremated, and that plans for the ashes would be finalized later.
The Chinese government, which had long banned Liu’s work and even his name, continues to censor the story of his death, deleting social media posts mourning him — including those simply displaying the image of a burning candle — and blocking online searches containing variations of his name and famed quotes.
Domestic media outlets, all controlled by the ruling Communist Party, mostly ignored the news, with a photo of a beaming President Xi Jinping meeting his Canadian counterpart dominating the front page of the party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.
A few English-language outlets carried short reports on Liu’s death, highlighting his “criminal” background and the Chinese doctor’s effort to save him.
Before he was granted medical parole last month, Liu had been serving a 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” His conviction in late 2009 stemmed from his co-authorship of a manifesto calling for human rights and political reform in China.
In 2010, while he was in prison, the Nobel committee awarded Liu the peace prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” — a move that infuriated Beijing.
In a harshly worded English-language editorial published Friday by the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, the state-run newspaper painted Liu as “a victim led astray by West.”
“Liu lived in an era when China witnessed the most rapid growth in recent history, but he attempted to confront Chinese mainstream society under Western support,” it said. “This has determined his tragic life.”
“The West has bestowed upon Liu a halo, which will not linger,” it added.
The newspaper had tweeted a since-deleted message in Chinese on Sina Weibo — Twitter’s equivalent in China — mocking the international reactions to Liu’s death: “The person’s gone but a blockbuster tear-jerker is just on — we’ll sit back and enjoy the show.”
Amid an avalanche of condolences and condemnations from politicians and activists from around the world, the Chinese government took the unusual step of issuing a statement shortly after 2 a.m. Friday to respond to what it called “improper comments” by foreign officials.
“The handling of Liu Xiaobo’s case belongs to China’s domestic affairs, and foreign countries are in no position to make improper remarks,” said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “We call on relevant countries to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and not to meddle in China’s domestic affairs with this individual case.”
The statement was sent directly to foreign journalists and was nowhere to be found on the ministry’s website — just like all previous official responses to questions about Liu.
At a regular press briefing Friday afternoon, Geng said China has conveyed its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to all governments and international entities that commented on Liu’s death, including the US and the UN’s human rights commission.
China’s warning seems to have gone unheeded, with even the US president — not known to be a public champion of human rights activists — expressing his sorrow over Liu’s death and calling him a “political prisoner.”
Echoing myriad other world leaders, Donald Trump made a point of mentioning Liu Xia, a poet and artist who married Liu Xiaobo in 1996 while he was serving an earlier prison sentence.
As Liu Xiaobo remained behind bars until recently, Liu Xia, 56, had paid a heavy price for simply being his wife. Under de facto house arrest since his Nobel win, Liu Xia saw her communication with the outside world almost completely cut by the government.
She has been suffering severe depression, according to close friends, especially after the authorities sentenced her brother to 11 years in prison over what supporters call trumped-up charges of business fraud.
Now, Liu Xia is increasingly the focus of an international campaign calling for her freedom and right to live abroad, which many friends and supporters say were her husband’s dying wishes.
“He loved her so much that he felt he owed it to her,” said Liao Yiwu, a prominent Chinese writer who now lives in Germany and a longtime friend of the Lius.
“He didn’t know about her condition and what had happened at home until not that long ago — that’s why he agreed to go abroad with her.”
In a hastily arranged press conference in Shenyang after his death, Liu Xiaobo’s Chinese doctors acknowledged for the first time that he had sought treatment overseas but insisted that his medical condition by then had made international travel impossible.
They confirmed that Liu Xia was by her husband’s bedside when he died — and his last words were telling her to “live a good life.”
Despite worldwide solidarity behind Liu Xia, many supporters sense the Chinese government’s fear of her turning into an international symbol and rallying cry for human rights — and foresee an uphill battle ahead.
Geng, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, repeatedly declined to say Friday if the government would allow Liu Xia to leave China, insisting that Beijing would handle her case “in accordance with law.”
The Shenyang city government spokesman emphasized Saturday that “Liu Xia is free” but needs privacy to mourn her painful loss.
In government handout photos of her husband’s funeral, a grief-stricken Liu Xia, wearing all black and sunglasses, could be seen bowing to the open casket in one image and holding a portrait of Liu Xiaobo in another.
“Few knew Liu Xiaobo’s thoughts in the last eight years, but she did and they talked during his last days,” said Hu Jia, a leading Chinese human rights activist who has known Liu Xia for years and served prison terms for his own advocacy. “I think the authorities are afraid of seeing even the simplest last words from him get out and spread.”
Across the closely monitored cyberspace in China, some internet users have evaded the censors to post lines from Liu Xia’s poems that were dedicated to her late husband — with verses from “Wind” among the most popular: “Walls make you suffocate / you are the wind, and the wind / never tells me / when it comes and when it goes.”