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How Germany Won Freedom for the Widow of China’s Most Famous Dissident

BEIJING — Until the door of the plane that took her to freedom in Germany closed, they hovered around. They escorted her on the 90-minute car ride from her apartment to the airport. They walked her through a special departure area.

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Jane Perlez
Ian Johnson, New York Times

BEIJING — Until the door of the plane that took her to freedom in Germany closed, they hovered around. They escorted her on the 90-minute car ride from her apartment to the airport. They walked her through a special departure area.

For the past year, China’s formidable security apparatus had guarded, watched and controlled the movements of Liu Xia, 57, widow of China’s most famous dissident, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of cancer last July under police guard.

Then, out of the blue, a security official telephoned her last week to say she could pick up a passport and leave the country, European diplomats said.

The decision by the Chinese government to release Liu days before the anniversary of her husband’s death sprung from the passionate interest in her fate by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who requested Liu’s release during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, an unusual move by a Western leader.

That request coincided with China’s realization that Liu, a talisman of international human rights groups, had become a liability just as China’s image was taking a battering in the United States and Europe over what are considered predatory economic policies and increasingly authoritarian rule.

Beijing calculated, diplomats said, that events planned in Germany on Friday to commemorate Liu Xiaobo’s death risked turning starkly negative if Liu Xia were still under house arrest in Beijing, unable to talk to anyone but a few people, and forbidden to move freely beyond her apartment building.

A year ago, after the death of Liu Xiaobo, China felt it need not worry about friends, not even Germany, the heavyweight of Europe, said Volker Stanzel, a former German ambassador to China.

“That was a time when China felt it was riding high,” Stanzel said. “Now China is feeling headwinds.”

Liu’s release, Stanzel said, was a “gesture toward the most important partner in Europe.”

Liu, a poet and photographer, was a special case for China’s government. She had been held under house arrest since her husband’s prize was announced in 2010. But she had committed no crime. Friends said she was not driven by politics. They also said she suffered unspecified physical and mental distresses including depression.

Her main threat to the government was association with her husband.

That gave a path, diplomats said, for the government to let her go, while not eager to appear to bend in its resolute stance against dissidents.

As if to counter any impression that the release might be interpreted as a change in Xi’s hard-line approach to dissenters, a pro-democracy campaigner, Qin Yongmin, 64, was handed a 13-year prison sentence Wednesday, the day Liu left the country. Qin was found guilty of “subversion of state power.”

Lawyers said it was one of the most severe sentences in recent years for that charge, two years longer than the time given to Liu Xiaobo when sentenced on a similar charge in 2009.

Liu Xia had long wanted to leave China, but had wavered while her husband was incarcerated. In his last days, Liu Xiaobo had asked to travel to Germany or the United States for treatment for his terminal liver cancer — mainly in an effort to get his wife, who would accompany him, out of the country, diplomats said.

The government refused permission.

After his death, the campaign to get her out, led by the German government, began in earnest. But it also was done quietly, so as not to annoy the Chinese government, which detests publicity about human rights cases.

In March, after China completed the major political events of the year — its annual parliamentary sessions and the declaration of Xi as president with no term limits — there was some hope among Western diplomats that Liu would be released. Nothing happened.

Then, in May, Merkel visited Beijing. The daughter of a pastor who grew up in East Germany, the chancellor has aimed to balance Germany’s vital economic interests in China with a critique of Beijing’s human rights record.

“Human rights aren’t just words for her,” Stanzel said. “It’s genuine.”

In a public show of support for human rights activists, many of them jailed in a nationwide crackdown, Merkel met with the wives of two Chinese human rights lawyers whose husbands were in detention. One of the lawyers was among more than 200 human rights activists detained or questioned in a July 2015 crackdown.

“Others don’t do this,” Stanzel said, of Merkel’s push on human rights. “The British are desperate for a trade deal; President Macron of France is new; Trump uninterested.”

“The wives told Merkel that she was the only one to meet them,” he said. “This surprised her.”

When Merkel raised Liu’s situation with Xi and requested her freedom, the response was that the widow could be freed but on condition that there be no publicity, a European diplomat with knowledge of the visit said.

While Merkel pressured Beijing, in the background, in Germany, Liao Yiwu, a Chinese dissident writer, befriended the former German president, Joachim Gauck, who had once been a pastor and prominent rights advocate in East Germany.

Liao’s influence helped push Liu’s case throughout the upper levels of the German government, and stimulated interest among the public, Stanzel said. When Liu got the news she could leave, her brother, Liu Hui, helped plan her exit. She still could not leave her apartment.

He picked up her passport and took it to the German Embassy for its first visa.

Instead of leaving immediately, Liu decided she should take time to pack her belongings. She chose Tuesday as the day of departure on Finn Air, to Helsinki, a flight that had the best connection to her destination, Berlin.

Her brother drove her to the airport, tailed by Chinese security. A diplomat from the German Embassy was assigned by the German government to be on the same flight.

In Washington, the State Department said it welcomed the release of Liu “as she had long wished” but remained concerned about her brother. The Chinese authorities refused to let him go at the same time as his sister, and maintains he faces tax charges, diplomats said.

When Liu arrived in Helsinki, she spread her arms, outstretched like an eagle ready for take off. She looked ebullient, a wide smile spread across her face.

In Berlin, Liao, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter visited Liu in quarters arranged by the German government.

“She’s doing well but needs some quiet time,” Liao said. “It’s been an exhausting period for her.”

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