Supporters of Liu Xiaobo gathered worldwide Wednesday to mark the traditional Chinese observance of the seventh day after the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s death, amid growing concern over the fate of his widow, Liu Xia, who has been kept under house arrest for more than seven years.
As Liu’s supporters prepared for memorials, more than a dozen men have been holding an around-the-clock vigil in a leafy apartment complex in west Beijing with a different purpose altogether: keeping visitors and journalists away from the home Liu shared with Liu Xia.
Though never charged, Liu Xia was kept guarded and isolated in the apartment while her husband was serving an 11-year sentence on charges of incitement to subvert government power.
Last seen in official photos showing her lowering an urn containing her husband’s ashes into the sea on Saturday, her whereabouts Wednesday were unknown. Numerous foreign governments and rights groups have demanded China lift all restrictions on her movements.
Tienchi Martin-Liao, the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and a close family friend based in Cologne, Germany, said there were rumors that Liu Xia has been forced by authorities to take a “vacation” in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where she has friends. Liu Xia and her close circle of confidants in China have gone quiet, Martin-Liao said.
“Before we were able to at least see her weekly through video chat on a friend’s phone. Now she’s been completely cut off,” Martin-Liao said. “What crimes has she committed to be surveilled, controlled and humiliated?”
During a brief visit to Liu Xia’s apartment complex on Wednesday, there were no signs of supporters. The vast compound and each of its entrances were guarded by more than a dozen young men with buzz cuts who closely followed and filmed anyone who approached. Outside the compound’s main gate, a handful of plainclothes agents had installed chairs and an umbrella to sit under while they watched, shooing away anyone who photographed them.
Authorities have also rigorously censored references to Liu Xiaobo on China’s internet, with reports that social media posts containing candle emojis and the letters “RIP” have been censored for violating “relevant laws and regulations.” WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned service used by Chinese dissidents for a degree of privacy, had patchy service this week as authorities periodically blocked access to its servers.
On Saturday, authorities accompanied by Liu Xia and a few relatives lowered Liu Xiaobo’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean at Tiger Beach near Dalian, a move that his supporters said was designed to erase any physical traces of China’s best-known political prisoner and prevent the transformation of Liu’s grave into a memorial site. For centuries the practice of cuoguyanghui — literally “file down the bones and scatter the ashes” — was known as a cruel form of posthumous punishment in traditional Chinese culture, which placed importance on being laid to rest in tombs that could be visited and venerated by descendants and loved ones.
Hours later, Liu’s supporters on different continents paid their respects anyway — by going to the seaside.
On Tuesday afternoon, police took away Jiang Jianjun, a Dalian man who had posted online about scattering flowers at Tiger Beach, his wife said Wednesday.
Outside China, however, supporters gathered on beaches to mourn while others turned Liu’s sea burial into a meme.
In New York and Taiwan, they posted pictures of memorials by the sea. Zhou Fengsuo, a California-based activist involved in the 1989 Tiananmen student-led pro-democracy protests in which Liu Xiaobo played a key role, posted pictures of himself holding the Lius’ portrait while chest deep in San Francisco Bay.
“Many of us were angry, like there was nothing we could do because it was a sea burial,” he said. “But when I swam, I felt like we had a connection, like he was there.”
Zhou said there were plans to paint a mural for Liu at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. In Australia, an artist known by the pseudonym Baduicao painted pictures of the Lius at the “graffiti tunnel” on the Sydney University campus, where visitors have laid wreaths.
Other supporters found creative ways to mourn online. On a popular Chinese music streaming service, users left a string of comments about a song titled “The Ocean” by the late Taiwanese pop singer Chang Yu-sheng. Some mentioned Liu’s name while others were more oblique in their messages.
“Floating with ocean currents, you’ll never be forgotten,” one said, while another said, “They think it’s over, but they don’t know that every place that the waves will touch will hold your memory.”