SHENYANG, CHINA – The ashes of China’s late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo were buried at sea on Saturday, depriving his supporters of a place to pay tribute to the pro-democracy dissident.
Officials showed a video in which his wife, Liu Xia, and relatives lowered a white round urn into the water off the northeastern coastal city of Dalian, two days after the democracy advocate died of liver cancer aged 61 while in custody.
His supporters said the authorities wanted to avoid giving him a pilgrimage site where they could remember a writer whose calls for political reform angered the communist regime and led to his arrest in 2008.
Officials “fear that if someone who is as emblematic a symbol as Liu Xiaobo had a burial ground, it would become a place where his supporters would gather on his memorial day, the day he received the Nobel or any other such occasions to express their desire to chase after freedom,” activist and family friend Ye Du said.
Liu Xiaobo’s older brother, Liu Xiaoguang, said at a news conference organized by the authorities that the government had followed the family’s wishes.
He thanked the Communist Party for its “humanistic care” of his brother during his hospitalization and death. He did not take any questions before being escorted out by two women.
Zhang Qingyang, an official from the Shenyang city municipal office, said the cremation was “in accordance with the will of his family members and local customs.”
Liu’s supporters said it was impossible to verify if it was really his wish to be buried at sea as the authorities have severely restricted access to his family. They also said Liu Xiaoguang did not agree with Liu Xiaobo’s political leanings.
“It is deplorable how the Chinese government has forced the family to cremate Liu Xiaobo, bury him at sea, and then coerced Liu’s brother to make robotic statements to the media about the great care of the government and superiority of its health care system,” said Jared Genser, a U.S. lawyer who represented Liu.
Authorities also released photos of a private ceremony attended by his family, including his wife, whose fate worries supporters hoping the government will cede to international pressure to release her and let her leave China.
Liu Xia, a poet, stood with her brother, and two of Liu Xiaobo’s brothers in front of the body, which was covered with white petals.
Zhang said “friends” also attended the ceremony.
But Amnesty International’s China researcher Patrick Poon said he did not recognise any in the row of nonfamily members in the official photo. And people close to the Liu couple identified at least one “state security police officer” among them.
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who lives in Berlin, tweeted a photo of the funeral and called the display “disgusting” and a “violation” of the deceased.
In Hong Kong thousands took part in a candlelit march Saturday night in memory of Liu. “He was a great scholar who woke up young people, especially of my generation,” said Beijing-born Steven Wong, 45, who traveled from Singapore to attend the march.
China’s government faced a global backlash for denying Liu Xiaobo’s wish to be treated abroad, and the United States and European Union have called on the government to free Liu Xia.
Australia on Sunday joined that chorus, urging Beijing to lift any travel curbs on Liu Xia.
“We call upon the Chinese government to lift any travel restrictions on his wife and to release her from house detention,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Liu Xia has been under house arrest since 2010, but she was allowed to see her husband after he was transferred from prison to a hospital in Shenyang following his diagnosis of late-stage liver cancer in late May.
Liu Xiaoguang said Liu Xia was in “weak condition” and experiencing such “great sorrow” and that she may need hospital treatment.
“As far as I know, Liu Xia is in a free condition,” municipal official Zhang said.
But Genser said she was still being held “incommunicado” and he has “seen no sign that the government is going to let her go.”
At Liu Xiaobo’s funeral, Liu Xia “fixed her eyes on him a long time, mumbling to say farewell,” Zhang said, adding that she was “in very low spirits.”
“It’s best for her not to receive too much outside interference during this period,” he said.
Liu was jailed in 2008 after co-writing a petition calling for democratic reforms. The veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “subversion” a year later.
“The most preposterous thing is that even during his cremation and funeral he still was not free,” said Hu Jia, a Beijing-based activist and family friend.
“And now it’s been passed on to his wife, who will continue to lead on that same freedomless existence.”