Beijing did not ask for anything in return for releasing artist and poet Liu Xia and allowing her to go to Berlin last month, according to the German ambassador to China.
The 57-year-old widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prominent political prisoner Liu Xiaobo arrived in Germany last month after spending nearly eight years under house arrest in China. Her release prompted speculation over whether any political concessions had been made for her freedom at a time when Beijing is locked in a trade war with Washington and could use a strong European ally.
Liu Xia’s release coincided with Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Germany last month, but ambassador Michael Clauss, who is nearing the end of a five-year posting in China, dismissed the idea that any deal was made.
“There was some speculation in the media about a possible political or business deal related to Liu Xia’s release. I can confirm there were absolutely no such deals,” Clauss said.
He added that the pivotal moment which turned around Liu Xia’s situation came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited China in May.
Merkel again raised the case with President Xi Jinping during that trip, which led to steps that saw her eventual release last month, the South China Morning Post has learned.
Katrin Kinzelbach, associate director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, shared the view that Germany did not make concessions for Liu Xia’s freedom.
“Germany does not have a history of offering concessions for the release of political prisoners, and it is implausible that Berlin changed course in the case of Liu Xia,” she said.
“Liu Xia’s release was a political gesture, but she was not a bargaining chip in the sense that she was exchanged to facilitate a trade deal,” Kinzelbach said. “People who make that argument misunderstand the type of negotiations that are taking place between Germany and China as well as the present power dynamic.”
She added that Beijing had a “very strong interest in the principle of free trade” and was in a difficult economic face-off with Washington. “The German government also experiences difficulties in the relationship with the [Donald] Trump administration – this undoubtedly strengthens Beijing’s position. The power dynamic has fundamentally shifted,” she said.
Liu Xia made international headlines when she was finally given a passport and could leave Beijing on July 10, taking 14 pieces of luggage with her that contained mostly books, camera gear and sentimental items.
But her brothers remain in China. Her younger brother, Liu Hui, was sentenced to 11 years’ jail for fraud in 2013 and later released on parole and is not allowed to leave the country.
Liu Xia’s older brother, Liu Tong, said he was not even aware that she had gone to Germany until after she had left. Sources with knowledge of the matter told the Post that the decision had even been kept from some Chinese officials. They included those from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had often been pressed by media for updates on the case and were not immediately notified about the development.
It is the Ministry of Public Security that issues travel and identification documents for Chinese citizens.
One of the sources said Liu Xia had been so preoccupied with packing and bidding farewell to “a limited list of close friends approved by [the Chinese] security apparatus” that she barely slept for days in the lead-up to her departure.
She arrived in Berlin three days before the first anniversary of her husband’s death in custody from liver cancer, her release made possible after years of diplomatic efforts.
Clauss was one of the diplomats involved. Recalling his exchanges with Liu Xia over the years, he said “seeing her being released was one of the most joyful moments in my five years of tenure here”.
“The embassy established direct contact with Liu Xia at the beginning of my tenure. Sometimes our contact was interrupted for periods of two to three months,” said Clauss, who has been ambassador since August 2013.
“There were many touching and dramatic moments during my phone conversations with Liu Xia. I knew that she occasionally played badminton with the few people she was allowed to see while being under house arrest,” he said.
“In order to cheer her up, I told her that both of us would be playing badminton too one day. That’s how we created this running gag – in every phone conversation I would tell her that I had been practising with my kids to prepare for our match.”
Clauss will leave Beijing on Wednesday. “We are in contact and we will see each other soon,” he said.
The ambassador also recalled how difficult it had been “to establish and maintain a line of communication with the competent authorities” about Liu Xia.
“I got the impression that decisions in such cases are taken at a very high level,” he said.
The Post has learned that officials from the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission – which is under the powerful Central Committee and oversees policing and other work to do with maintaining social stability – as well as higher level officials were involved in both Liu Xia’s case and that of her husband.
Clauss, who has travelled to every province and autonomous region in China, including Tibet, during his time as ambassador, also expressed concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.
“Human rights is and will be a cornerstone of German foreign policy – this is in Germany’s DNA. We are very much concerned about the fate of the 709 lawyers. Also the case of Gui Minhai is a big worry to us,” Clauss said. “We will continue to raise individual cases of the 709 lawyers and their dependants.”
He was referring to a crackdown on July 9 three years ago that saw some 300 lawyers and activists detained across the country, some of whom are still behind bars, as well as the case of detained Hong Kong-based bookseller Gui.
‘Shackled, isolated and beaten’: how one child became a victim of China’s 709 crackdown on rights lawyers
Clauss will take up a new role in Brussels as Germany’s envoy to the European Union and will be replaced in Beijing next month by Clemens von Goetze, who is currently the German ambassador to Israel.
Liu Xia was placed under house arrest in 2010 – when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in jail – but was never charged with any offence by the Chinese authorities. Liu Xiaobo was jailed for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges after co-authoring a petition known as Charter 08 calling for sweeping political reforms in China.
This article China made ‘absolutely no deals’ for Liu Xia’s release, German envoy says first appeared on South China Morning Post
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