Liu Xiaobo Embodied Hope for China’s Democracy. Now He’s Sick.

While almost no one expects China to become a democracy now, that was at least a hope in 2008.

“When Charter 08 was signed, there was a yearning for more open dialogue and talk about a peaceful societal transition,” said one of the signatories, Ai Xiaoming, a scholar and documentary filmmaker in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. “But now there is even more strict social control, and the room for civil society has shrunk significantly.”

Ms. Ai, who met Mr. Liu before his imprisonment, also expressed guilt that he alone among the organizers had been convicted and sentenced so harshly — to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” — though many others also faced harassment that forced them underground or out of the country.

International attention — Mr. Liu was awarded the Nobel in 2010 — gave Ms. Ai and others hope of protecting him, but the world moved on, even as China tightened its controls over nonprofit organizations and moved to arrest lawyers.

“It’s sad to see he’s no longer the center of attention,” Ms. Ai said in a telephone interview. “We had a kind of illusion that the government would be nice to him given his international influence. Now I doubt that was the case.”

Mr. Liu’s wife, the poet and photographer Liu Xia, has been under strict house arrest in Beijing since his Nobel Prize was announced. Friends circulated a cellphone video on Monday in which a crying Ms. Liu said doctors “can’t operate, can’t use radiotherapy, can’t use chemotherapy” to treat her husband’s cancer.

Mr. Liu’s Nobel Prize — in recognition of “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” — focused attention on his fate, but over the years he was sidelined if not forgotten by the pragmatic needs of countries that felt no choice but to work with China, not criticize it.

China’s response to the prize illustrated the risks of going…

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