Foreign governments have the right to complain about the People’s Republic of China’s denial of internationally-guaranteed human rights to the Chinese people. The PRC, for example, in the exercise of its vaunted sovereignty, chose to limit its sovereignty by ratifying the UN Convention against Torture that spells out in detail all the kinds of conduct that constitute internationally forbidden torture, mental as well as physical. The PRC’s mistreatment of its many political dissidents plainly violates this Convention in many respects.
The case of Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Ms. Liu Xia, is an obvious example of the PRC subjecting to forbidden torture someone who has not even been accused of a crime or even legally detained. As to her husband, we don’t know the facts of his final imprisonment and the extent to which he was denied adequate medical treatment but it is widely suspected that the authorities at least demonstrated indifference to his increasingly dangerous medical condition and that its mistreatment of Liu Xiaobo could well be deemed a violation of the Convention against Torture.
Of course, Liu Xiaobo’s criminal conviction was based on the regime’s suppression of his freedom of speech and the violations of criminal justice protections that marked his prosecution. Both of these categories of rights are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the PRC has signed but not yet ratified. The PRC has, however, ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which requires it to respect the freedoms of expression denied to Liu Xiaobo. It is nonsense for the PRC, on the one hand, to commit itself to international rights protections in the exercise of its sovereignty and then, on the other, to say that holding it to such commitments is a violation of its sovereignty.
Not only should foreign governments condemn China for its violations of human rights that led to Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment and death, but they should also press the Chinese government to give Liu Xia, who has been put under severe illegal house arrest for the past seven years, the option to leave China. If she chooses to remain in China, the Chinese government should, in accordance with its international human rights obligations, immediately lift all the oppressive conditions that she has suffered.
However, the chance that Liu Xia will be allowed to leave China or have genuine freedom at home in the near future may be slim. The Chinese regime was obviously extremely reluctant to release Liu Xiabo, whether at home or abroad, because of understandable fear of what he would choose as his final words. At home, if he had been allowed to leave the hospital, he would have been kept under strict guard to prevent media contacts, as so many other human rights victims currently are. This is what I call “Non-release ‘release’”. Release abroad would have permitted him to indict the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship before the world, unless the Party insisted on keeping Liu Xia and her brother as hostages.
The PRC is also very sensitive about being seen to allow what it calls “foreign interference with its judicial sovereignty”. As noted above, however, this is a spurious argument in those cases where it has exercised its sovereignty to commit itself to the international standards it has violated.
While it is easy to conclude, given the current relentless repression, that the Chinese Communist Party cares little about what the world thinks of it, I believe that it actually cares desperately, even today. That’s one of the reasons why it confined Liu Xiaobo, despite the great “soft power” cost in doing so. Allowing him to be free would have been even more costly in ”soft power” terms because of his withering criticism. Moreover, it would have allowed him to “subvert” its dictatorship by challenging it on democratic grounds before the Chinese public.