Fears are mounting once more over the mental health of Liu Xia, artist and activist wife of jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, after she made an unusual and disturbing phone call to a close friend, defying her strict house arrest at the couple's Beijing home.
Liu managed to dial out from her home, where she is confined for most of the time and cut off from contact with the outside world, on Wednesday night, Beijing-based Tibetan author Tsering Woeser said via social media.
“I am so shocked; I just got a call from Liu Xia, the first in many years," Woeser said via Twitter late on Wednesday.
"I asked her how she's doing, and she said not good, and that she'd just tried dialing out on the off-chance to see if it would work," Woeser wrote.
"Her voice was trembling all over the place."
She said the call was cut off on two occasions, and she only managed a brief exchange with Liu, who she said sounded "far away" and had been drinking.
Guangdong-based rights activist Ye Du, a close friend of the family, said on Thursday that Liu Xia is feeling the effects of long-term, solitary house arrest, and experiences mood swings.
"I have just spoken to Liu Xia by phone," Ye said. "There has been no relaxation of the surveillance measures from the authorities."
"Over Chinese New Year, when everyone else is getting together, she was all alone and under police surveillance," he said.
"Her mood was pretty low, and she had a bit to drink and tried to call Wang Lixiong for a chat. Woeser, who is Wang Lixiong's wife, took the call," Ye added.
Liu Xia was placed under house arrest as soon as Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October 2010, and has been unable to move around freely or pursue paid work.
Friends and family say their contact with Liu Xia has been severely limited since her brother Liu Hui, jailed for 11 years for "bribery" charges in 2013, was released on bail—with strict conditions attached.
Liu Xia has been warned that her brother could go back to jail if she has any contact with the outside world, including fellow rights activists, foreign diplomats, or journalists.
Ye said Wednesday's phone call was a rare event, as Liu Xia is being controlled by the authorities with constant threats.
"The government is controlling Liu Xia by preventing her from speaking to the outside world by phone, by threatening [to deny] her visits with Liu Xiaobo," he said.
"When I spoke to her just now, she sounded very frail, as if she has no vitality left in her," Ye said.
Liu Xia's lawyer Shang Baojun said she is suffering from severe depression as a direct result of being under house arrest.
"All of the various pressures have had a huge impact on her," he said.
And Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the authorities also control exactly which of her friends she can talk to, when this is allowed.
"She's allowed to call some friends who aren't considered very political sensitive," Hu said. "They are mostly Liu Xiaobo's friends, and they include Woeser and commentator Mo Zhixu. She can't call sensitive individuals, including me, on her phone, nor even Liu Xiaobo's lawyer Mo Shaoping."
"It's a pretty small list [that she can call]," he said.
Hu said Liu Xia has no real freedom at all.
"Here [in China], Liu Xia will never know true freedom, unless there is systemic change here, or political reform," he said.
"The only way she can be free is if we have universal suffrage."
'Really on edge'
Hong Kong activist Yeung Hung, who was once detained for trying to visit Liu Xia at her Beijing apartment, said he was very anxious about her.
"I am really on edge after hearing this news, because it doesn't seem that the authorities have relaxed the restrictions on her at all," Yeung told RFA.
"She's just confined within those four walls, but there's no such thing as a self-sufficient person. She was always going to try to break through her confinement one day," he said.
"A lot of her friends have tried to visit her, but not one has succeeded so far," he said.
More than six years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo looks unlikely to be given the chance to seek medical treatment overseas, as high-profile dissidents have done before him.
Liu, 60, is unlikely to qualify for parole, because he has never admitted to committing any crime, and friends say he is highly unlikely to accept any deals offered to him by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.