Liu Xia & Zhen Jianghua by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Liu Xia & Zhen Jianghua


For me the future is
a closed window
where night has no end
and nightmares can’t be lifted.
I want to be in light.

So wrote Liu Xia in 2011 in her poem ‘Fragment No 8’. Liu, a poet, artist and founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, has been held under extra-judicial house arrest in her Beijing apartment since her late husband, the poet Liu Xiaobo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. She has never been charged with any offence by the Chinese authorities. For seven years Liu was denied access to telephones, the internet, doctors of her choice and visitors. Following the death of her husband in July 2017, Liu posted a video on YouTube asking to be left alone to mourn. Many believe she was pressurised by the authorities to release this statement.

The restrictions against Liu have been relaxed in recent months. She was allowed to leave her home in February to spend the evening before Chinese New Year with her brother. However, she was barred from meeting friends afterwards and remains under constant surveillance. PEN believes that the ongoing house arrest of Liu is in retaliation for her husband’s human rights activism. It remains extremely concerned for her physical and psychological wellbeing. In November 2017, over fifty prominent international authors, including Chimamanda Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Tom Stoppard and George Saunders, wrote an open letter to Chinese president Xi Jinping urging him ‘to lift all remaining restrictions against Liu Xia, and to ensure her freedom of speech, her freedom to meet with others, and her freedom to travel’. The joint signatories observed that ‘Liu Xia has undergone great suffering for many years, simply for being the wife of a man that China has deemed to be a dissident’.

Liu is also a talented poet in her own right. As she has previously remarked herself, ‘I am not a vassal of Liu Xiaobo’. Her refusal to be cowed has clearly contributed to her mistreatment by the authorities. On 9 December, Liao Yiwu, an exiled Chinese author, posted a photograph on Facebook of a poem he claimed Liu had sent to the Nobel laureate Herta Müller:

Too solitary
I have not the right to speech
To speak loudly
I live like a plant
I lie like a corpse.

In 2009, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years in prison for ‘inciting subversion of state power’. Activists and human rights defenders in China continue to be detained and prosecuted on similarly nebulous charges, including ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. The Chinese government has tried to eradicate the country’s few independent human rights news platforms by imprisoning their founders and contributors. Many are detained incommunicado, which puts them at risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

Human Rights Watch has recently highlighted the case of Zhen Jianghua, who has been held incommunicado since September 2017. Zhen, who is thirty-two and a former computer programmer, has been involved in peaceful activism for over a decade. He is executive director of Quanli Yundong (Human Rights Campaign in China), which regularly publishes information relating to the detention of activists, police abuses and other human rights violations. Zhen is also the founder of, a website that helps people circumvent China’s Great Firewall and access the internet uncensored. As a social worker, he has assisted victims of domestic violence in his home town of Zhuhai, in Guangdong province, and people with autism in Macau.

After becoming executive director of Quanli Yundong in 2015, Zhen disseminated information about government clampdowns on human rights activists and developed a support network to campaign for their release. During the ‘709 crackdown’, which saw the authorities rounding up hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists, Zhen mobilised support for detained lawyers and activists and their families. During his tireless work for human rights, Zhen has been regularly intimidated by the authorities, forcibly evicted and detained.

On 1 September, the Zhuhai police picked up Zhen from his home and placed him under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’. This secret, incommunicado detention allows the police to hold individuals for up to six months without access to legal counsel or family members. There have been numerous reports of detainees being tortured while under ‘residential surveillance’. On 30 March 2018, Zhen was formally charged with ‘inciting subversion’. He continues to be denied access to legal counsel and family members, with the authorities citing ‘national security’ concerns.

Readers might like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release from extra-judicial house arrest of the poet and artist Liu Xia, and the dropping of charges and release from detention of Zhen Jianghua; seeking assurances that Liu and Zhen will be granted access to any medical care they may require; urging the authorities to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides for freedom of expression and movement; and pointing out that as a signatory to the ICCPR China is obliged to ‘refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose’.

Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Ambassador Liu Xiaoming
Chinese Embassy
49 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981

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