Diplomats in Beijing say time is running out for ailing Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo to go overseas for treatment and fear China’s top leaders are deliberately stalling the process until it is no longer safe for medics to move him.
Last Sunday two foreign doctors who were allowed to visit the critically-ill dissident announced – contrary to Chinese claims – that Liu was well enough to be taken overseas but it needed to happen as quickly as possible.
On Wednesday – amid contested reports that his condition was deteriorating – sources within the diplomatic community told the Guardian they believed it was still possible for the dissident, who has asked to be treated in the US or Germany, to be taken overseas with his wife, Liu Xia.
“There still is a window of opportunity but it is rapidly closing,” they said.
However, the sources said they feared China’s top leaders were playing a calculated waiting game, attempting to ride out a storm of international criticism until Liu was genuinely too unwell to be moved from the hospital in north-east China where he is being treated under guard.
Diplomats suspect Chinese leaders are reluctant to allow such a high-profile critic out of the country as they fear the disapproval of hardliners before a key Communist party congress this autumn marking the halfway point of President Xi Jinping’s 10-year term in power.
Xi hopes to use the 19th party congress to stack the upper echelons of the party with loyalists.
“It seems the leadership – with the party congress in mind – has decided to ride it out, irrespective of the considerable reputational damage,” the diplomatic sources said.
Beijing has sought to take advantage of the US retreat from the world stage under Donald Trump to boost its own soft power. It wants to portray China as a forward-looking nation that opposes protectionism and, unlike the US, is committed to fighting climate change.
However, critics say Liu’s plight underlines the chasm between that claim to responsible global leadership and the realities of one-party China.
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s east Asia director, said: “Hastening the death of a Nobel peace laureate is not the kind of leadership that the world needs from China.
“The treatment of Liu Xiaobo should sound serious alarms bells about China’s commitment to abide by international norms when the interest of the Communist party appear to be at stake.”
Asked repeatedly about Liu’s case by foreign journalists this week, Beijing has responded with the same mantra: “We oppose any countries interfering in China’s domestic affairs by using an individual case.”
The hospital treating Liu claimed his condition was worsening on Wednesday and that he had suffered organ failure and septic shock. However, supporters question the reliability of such official accounts, with some suspecting they are designed to bolster Beijing’s assertion that Liu is unfit to leave China rather than accurately convey the state of his health. One relative said Liu’s condition had actually improved.
Hu Ping, a US-based editor and friend of Liu, asked why the international community was not doing more to secure his release. “I think the Chinese government is consciously committing a political murder,” he said. “How far backwards is the world really moving?”
Ai Xiaoming, an activist and filmmaker, said: “Liu Xiaobo is no criminal. He is a person who has made a great contribution to China and to the world. He deserves to be free now.”
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen