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Story highlights

The Nobel peace laureate died in custody Thursday of liver cancer

The Chinese government is blacking out news reports about his death

(CNN) —  

The global outpouring of grief and anguish over Liu Xiaobo’s death stands in marked contrast to the muted reaction in his homeland.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer and human rights activist died Thursday evening of liver cancer while in custody at a hospital in Shenyang in northeastern China. He was 61.

Liu’s funeral was held Saturday morning in Shenyang and attended by his “family members and close friends,” according to a city government spokesman. Liu’s body had been cremated, and his ashes had been dropped into the sea in a private ceremony, he said.

“The authorities can’t afford to see Liu’s grave turn into a landmark and symbol where people gather to pay tribute,” said Hu Jia, a leading Chinese human rights activist who has known Liu’s wife for years and has served prison terms for his own advocacy. “They want to erase all traces of him.”

“But three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by water,” he added. “His grave is now everywhere.”

In a government-organized news conference, Liu Xiaobo’s eldest brother – who Liu’s supporters say had never approved his activism – on Saturday afternoon expressed the family’s “profuse gratitude” to the state for showing “humanity” in providing medical treatment and arranging “perfect” funeral services for Liu. He left without taking questions.

The Chinese government, which had long banned Liu’s work and even his name, continues to censor the story of his death, deleting social media posts mourning him – including those simply displaying the image of a burning candle – and blocking online searches containing variations of his name and famed quotes.

CNN’s broadcast is blacked out in China every time Liu’s images or story appear.

A poster of Liu Xiaobo is held up during a protest in Hong Kong.
Getty Images
A poster of Liu Xiaobo is held up during a protest in Hong Kong.

Domestic media outlets, all controlled by the ruling Communist Party, mostly have ignored the news. Dominating Friday’s front page of the party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, was a photo of a beaming President Xi Jinping meeting his Canadian counterpart.

A few English-language outlets carried short reports on Liu’s death, highlighting his “criminal” background and Chinese doctors’ effort to save him.

’Inciting subversion’

Before he was granted medical parole last month, Liu had been serving a 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” His conviction in late 2009 stemmed from his co-authorship of a manifesto calling for human rights and political reform in China.

In 2010, while he was in prison, the Nobel committee awarded Liu the peace prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” – a move that infuriated Beijing.

In a harshly worded, English-language editorial published Friday by the nationalistic tabloid, The Global Times, the state-run newspaper painted Liu as “a victim led astray by West.”

“Liu lived in an era when China witnessed the most rapid growth in recent history, but he attempted to confront Chinese mainstream society under Western support,” it said. “This has determined his tragic life.”

“The West has bestowed upon Liu a halo, which will not linger,” it added.

A protester holds up a picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo on June 30, 2017, in Hong Kong.
Joshua Berlinger/CNN
A protester holds up a picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo on June 30, 2017, in Hong Kong.

The newspaper had posted a since-deleted message in Chinese on Sina Weibo, a platform similar to Twitter, mocking the international reactions to Liu’s death: “The person’s gone but a blockbuster tear-jerker is just on – we’ll sit back and enjoy the show.”

’Improper comments’

Amid an avalanche of condolences and condemnations from politicians and activists around the world, the Chinese government took the unusual step of issuing a statement shortly after 2 a.m. Friday to respond to what it called “improper comments” by foreign officials.

“The handling of Liu Xiaobo’s case belongs to China’s domestic affairs, and foreign countries are in no position to make improper remarks,” said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “We call on relevant countries to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and not to meddle in China’s domestic affairs with this individual case.”

The statement was sent directly to foreign journalists and was nowhere to be found on the ministry’s website – just like all previous official responses to questions about Liu.

China has conveyed its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to all governments and international entities that commented on Liu’s death, including the United States and the United Nations’ human rights commission, Geng said at a regular news briefing Friday afternoon.

China’s warning seems to have gone unheeded, with even the US President – not known as a public champion of human rights activists – expressing his sorrow over Liu’s death and calling him a “political prisoner” in a statement.

Echoing myriad other world leaders, Donald Trump made a point of mentioning Liu Xia, a poet and artist who married Liu Xiaobo in 1996 while he was serving an earlier prison sentence.

Liu Xiaobo has become an icon of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Liu Xiaobo has become an icon of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

As her husband remained behind bars until recently, Liu Xia, 56, paid a heavy price for simply being his wife. Under de facto house arrest since his Nobel win, Liu Xia saw her communication with the outside world almost completely cut by the government.

She has been suffering severe depression, according to close friends, especially after authorities sentenced her brother to 11 years in prison over what supporters call trumped-up charges of business fraud.

Struggle continues

Now, Liu Xia is increasingly the focus of an international campaign calling for her freedom and right to live abroad, which many friends and supporters say were her husband’s dying wishes.

“He loved her so much that he felt he owed it to her,” said Liao Yiwu, a prominent Chinese writer and longtime friend of the Lius who now lives in Germany.

“He didn’t know about her condition and what had happened at home until not that long ago,” Liao said. “That’s why he agreed to go abroad with her.”

In a hastily arranged news conference in Shenyang after his death, Liu Xiaobo’s Chinese doctors acknowledged for the first time that he had sought treatment overseas but insisted that his medical condition by then had made international travel impossible.

They confirmed that Liu Xia was by her husband’s bedside when he died – and his last words urged her to “live a good life.”

Despite worldwide solidarity behind Liu Xia, many supporters sense the Chinese government’s fear of her turning into an international symbol and rallying cry for human rights. They foresee an uphill battle for her ahead.

“Few knew Liu Xiaobo’s thoughts in the last eight years, but she did, and they talked during his last days,” said Hu, the Chinese activist. “I think the authorities are afraid of seeing even the simplest last words from him get out and spread.”

Geng, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, repeatedly declined to say Friday whether the government would allow Liu Xia to leave China, insisting that Beijing would handle her case “in accordance with law.”

“Liu Xia is free,” the Shenyang city government spokesman said Saturday, but needs privacy to mourn her painful loss.

In government handout photos of her husband’s funeral, a grief-stricken Liu Xia, wearing all black and sunglasses, can be seen bowing to the open casket and holding a portrait of Liu Xiaobo.

The authorities later released videos that they said proved Liu Xia’s consent to the burial arrangement. One clip purportedly shows a handwritten note by Liu Xia on Thursday requesting a private sea burial, while the other appears to be a hidden-camera recording of her saying the same thing.

In a brief appearance before reporters, Liu Xiaobo’s eldest brother said Liu Xia was unable to join him due to her “extremely weak condition” that may require medical attention. He did not respond to shouted questions about her whereabouts amid growing international concern over her freedom and welfare.

Across the closely monitored cyberspace in China, some internet users have evaded censors to post lines from Liu Xia’s poems that were dedicated to her late husband – including verses from “Wind”: “Walls make you suffocate / you are the wind, and the wind / never tells me / when it comes and when it goes.”