Berlin/Beijing — Poet Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, was allowed to leave China and travel to Europe, ending her long house arrest, after a high-profile German-led diplomatic push.
Liu Xia, who was placed under house arrest after her husband’s subversion conviction in 2009, had left Beijing "to start a new life", her brother, Liu Hui, said on the WeChat messaging platform on Tuesday.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs later confirmed the Beijing-based poet’s departure, saying she went to Germany to seek medical treatment.
"The Chinese government is handling this issue in accordance with the law," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing.
Liu Xia, 57, had been kept under police surveillance despite having never been charged with a crime.
She was released almost a year after her husband succumbed to liver cancer in a secure Beijing hospital bed, the first Nobel laureate to die under guard since pacifist and Nazism critic Carl von Ossietzky’s 1938 death in Germany.
Liu Xiaobo’s demise — after serving eight years in prison for advocating an end to one-party rule — prompted renewed calls for Liu Xia’s freedom.
Liu Xia’s supporters had sought for her to emigrate to Germany and the country’s ambassador to China, Michael Clauss, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper in April that she should "enjoy the freedom of movement and to travel wherever she desires".
A reporter’s question during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s May visit to Beijing prompted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to defend his country’s human rights record.
The move comes a day after Merkel and Li met in Berlin, where Merkel praised his country’s greater openness to foreign investment.
China is trying to cast itself as an ally in Germany’s defence of the rules-based global trade order and international agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, which have been challenged by US President Donald Trump.
A spokesman for the German embassy in Beijing said he was unable to confirm any details.
The German foreign office and a spokesman for Merkel declined to comment on the case.
Hua, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, said she saw no connection between the Merkel’s meeting with Li and Liu Xia’s release.
The two leaders were expected to attend an autonomous vehicle demonstration in Berlin on Tuesday.
Since coming to power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has extended crackdowns against human rights lawyers and prominent internet commentators.
The country was holding 1,414 political and religious dissidents in jail in the country as of November, according to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which said "considerably more" cases have probably not been reported.
The decision to release Liu Xia could provide a more favourable diplomatic backdrop for the European Union-China Summit scheduled for Monday in Beijing.
The two sides are expected to discuss a range of trade and policy issues during the event.