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The lovers even China couldn't keep apart
01:24 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Nobel peace laureate died in custody Thursday of liver cancer

The Chinese government is blacking out news reports about his death

Beijing 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.

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.

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.

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 No