Late Liu Xiaobo Joins a Long Line of Victims of Harsh Chinese Prison Life

Abuse, medical neglect and torture are often part of the punishment for those who challenge Chinese rule, says former prisoners and lawyers.

Video grab of political prisoner Liu Xiaobo in an unspecified hospital released about two weeks before his death from cancer on July 13, 2017.

Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, who received international attention for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests and was serving an 11-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power” died of liver cancer on Thursday. The 61-year-old is merely the latest example of the life-shortening effect of time spent in Chinese prison.

Liu was granted medical parole, but the Chinese government refused to fully release him from custody. Human rights advocates say Liu’s case fits a deliberate pattern in Chinese prisons, where dissidents are routinely denied health care and forced to endure harsh prison conditions that aggravate their illnesses.

“They give people medical parole when they are under political pressure to do so, meaning that they don’t particularly want people to die on their watch,” China director of the Human Rights Campaign Sophie Richardson told RFA.

“There are cases where people are let out because they are so sick they couldn’t be treated properly in detention. But there are certainly cases where that is not true,” she said.

Liu, who received a late diagnosis and was suffering respiratory failure as his condition worsened, was offered the best possible treatment by Germany and the United States, but Chinese doctors ruled against the late activist’s travel amidst international outcry aimed at the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

This is not the first time Chinese authorities have withheld medical treatment from prisoners. Former winner of the European Union’s Sakharov human rights prize Hu Jia had five applications for medical parole turned down, despite warnings from his wife that his health was rapidly deteriorating.

Lawyers tortured

Hu told the New York Times that doctors had repeatedly misdiagnosed his abdominal pain as a side stitch. It was not until he was released from prison that he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis.

“His cirrhosis of the liver and now this acute pancreatitis are related to his time in jail,” Beijing rights lawyer Sui Muqing told RFA in an earlier report.

The deteriorating health of Chinese women’s rights activist Su Changlan, who was found guilty of "incitement to subvert state power" by the Foshan Intermediate People's Court in southern Guangdong Province, also received international attention last month after a medical parole request made earlier this year by her husband was denied.

Speaking to RFA in mid-May, Jin Bianling, the wife of lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who went missing in November 2016, said she was kept in the dark about his whereabouts and condition for months.

“We have recently learned from a sympathetic official source in Changsha that Jiang Tianyong has been tortured. There is a problem with his feet. They are so swollen that he can't stand up. He may be crippled for life,” Jin told RFA.

“I was extremely concerned and worried when I heard about this,” she said.  “I fear for Jiang Tianyong's life and his well-being, because I have seen that other lawyers, Xie Yang, Li Chunfu, and Li Heping released recently had been detained and tortured too.”

All of those lawyers were caught up in a sweeping crackdown on human rights lawyers launched by Beijing in July 2016.

"I worry that Jiang Tianyong won't be able to bear it,” Jin added.

Let nature do the killing

In Tibet, meanwhile, prisoners abused in Chinese custody are frequently left untreated, and are released in poor health only to die soon after.

Former top Communist Party aide Bao Tong told RFA in an earlier report inhumane treatment of Chinese citizens dates back to the 1949-76 Mao Zedong era.

"They have never treated people like people," Bao said in an earlier report. "They see them as targets for political struggle, oppression, and dictatorship; even their emphasis on a ‘harmonious society’ today means they don't recognize people as human."

The Chinese government has a history of human rights abuses that long predates the tenure of current President Xi Jinping, whose predecessor Hu Jintao jailed Liu Xiaobo.

Arrested twice and jailed for a total of 18 years for his role in the 1980 “Democracy Wall” movement, pro-democracy campaigner Wei Jingsheng spent the first 16 years of those 18 years in solitary confinement.

He was charged with having passed "secret" information concerning the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war to a foreigner and engaging in "counterrevolutionary propaganda and agitation.”

Diagnosed with a heart illness in 1984, Wei applied for medical parole for many years without approval, allowing his illness to worsen.

“After learning that I was diagnosed with heart illness, [then Supreme Leader] Deng Xiaoping personally ordered that I and several other political prisoners be sent to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and ordered that the labor camp we stayed in must be higher than 3,000 meters above sea level,” Wei told RFA.

“Qinghai prisons were afraid to accept us because they knew [the government] was using nature to kill, and they did not want to be a scapegoat,” he said.