The emergence on social media of an undated photograph of Liu Xia, widow of late Nobel laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, apparently browsing a Beijing bookstore, doesn’t mean that she is free to move around and contact friends and family at will, her friends have told RFA.
The photograph appears to show Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since the announcement of her late husband’s Nobel prize in October 2010, poring over titles in a bookshop, with her characteristic shaved head, and wearing dark clothing.
It has once more prompted speculation that the authorities may have relaxed their grip on Liu, whose continued house arrest in spite of having committed no crime, has caused an international public outcry.
But Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, a close friend of Liu Xia, said she could have insisted on making a quick visit to the store on one of her frequent trips to the hospital for medical treatment.
“For Liu Xia, true freedom would mean that she was able to engage in social interactions freely inside China, to meet up with friends, to receive visiting diplomats, to meet with journalists,” Hu said. “Is she able to do those things now? Has anyone seen her? Does anyone know?”
“Books must be among her only consolations and companions as she suffers through the long days and nights of her long-term house arrest,” he said.
Hu said he was unsure which bookstore Liu was visiting when the photo was taken.
“But I know that Liu Xia is and Liu Xiaobo was a great reader,” he said. “Personally, I think she has made an appearance at this bookstore during one of her trips to the hospital, in order to buy one of life’s necessities, in the same way that one might visit a supermarket.”
“It certainly doesn’t prove that she enjoys any degree of freedom,” Hu said.
'It doesn't tell us anything'
Liu Xia’s close friend, Guangdong-based writer Ye Du, said it is unclear when the photo was taken.
“Regardless of whether it is a recent photo or was taken a while ago, it doesn’t tell us anything,” Ye said. “She has, in the past, usually been allowed to visit Wansheng Bookstore under the supervision of the police.”
“As far as I know, Wangsheng Bookstore is where she usually goes, so I am guessing that that is probably where the photograph was taken,” he said.
He added: “They have been limiting Liu Xia’s freedom for so many years now that it must be unbearable for her, and there is no basis in law for them to do this; they are holding an ordinary citizen under illegal house arrest.”
Poet Meng Lang, a founder member of the writers’ group Independent Chinese PEN, said the photo emerged as the group convened on the democratic island of Taiwan to launch an anthology of poems in memory of Liu Xiaobo.
“I’m glad that she is able to look around a bookstore, that she is able to have this basic request fulfilled, because she is a reader, a bookworm,” Meng said. “I think Liu Xia would love to see a volume of poems commemorating Liu Xiaobo published in mainland China.”
Allowed to leave?
Last month, reports emerged that the ruling Chinese Communist Party may be getting ready to allow Liu Xia to leave the country.
A report in The Australian newspaper followed a tweet from Pin Ho, editor of New York-based Chinese news magazine Mingjing News, who wrote: "I am hearing that Liu Xia has already been informed by the Chinese foreign ministry that she will get her normal level of freedom back, and that she will be allowed to leave the country."
But fellow activists said there were no indications that Liu Xia was free to go anywhere, let alone to leave China.
Rights groups say Liu Xia remains in a state of de facto incommunicado detention, cut off from the outside world and barred from making her own free decisions about where to go, or whom to associate with.
Liu Xiaobo died last July, weeks after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, and after repeated requests from his family to seek medical treatment overseas were ignored.
Police have since detained a number of activists who staged memorials in his honor, and his name is still a banned search term on China's tightly controlled internet.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.