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Tillerson urges Beijing to let Liu Xiaobo’s wife leave the country, setting up confrontation

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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Beijing to allow Liu Xia, the wife of deceased Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, to leave the country.

Tillerson made the request in a statement issued hours after news of Liu Xiaobo’s death, setting up a confrontation that will extend beyond the dissident’s funeral.

“I join those in China and around the world in mourning the tragic passing of 2010 Nobel Peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died while serving a lengthy prison sentence in China for promoting peaceful democratic reform,” the statement cited Tillerson as saying.

“I call on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes.”

Liu Xiaobo died in a northern Chinese hospital of multiple organ failure on Thursday, Shenyang justice authorities announced in a statement.

The Nobel laureate, 61, was granted medical parole last month after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in late May following a “routine check-up”, according to the Shenyang Justice Bureau. News of his illness did not become public until the end of June.

China’s response to Tillerson’s request will be a key test for the relationship between the two countries ahead of President Donald Trump’s expected visit with President Xi Jinping in China in November.

The importance of a successful summit and the need for stability ahead of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party might convince the government to release Liu Xia.

“While they’re very obdurate about individuals who have put fingers in their eyes, the Party might have more flexibility when it comes to a spouse or a relative,” Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Centre on US-China Relations in New York, said in an interview.

“If they don’t release [Liu Xia], it’s a sign that things are more in a state of retrograde motion than we had imagined in terms of state control.”

Schell was referring to moves such as Beijing’s crackdown on virtual private networks – connections that bypass the country’s notorious “Great Firewall” – in an effort to block content not approved by government censors.

“One of the things [the Chinese government doesn’t] adequately appreciate, but are coming to appreciate more, is the degree to which American public opinion is being alienated,” Schell added. “Xi Jinping does recognise that the United States is an important player in China’s rise and that for better or worse it has to be managed well.”

Others say the timing of the 19th Party Congress will stiffen Xi’s resolve to defy any entreaties from Washington.

“I think that there is zero likelihood that Liu Xia will be allowed to leave the People’s Republic of China before the 19th Party Congress in the fall,” Carl Minzner, a Fordham University law professor specialising in Chinese law and governance, told the South China Morning Post.

“Even in the best of times, the elite political atmosphere in China during such leadership transitions is intensely sensitive, rendering Chinese leaders hesitant to take any risks exposing them to criticism from domestic political rivals.”

“Liu Xiaobo used the power of his voice, knowing he would face retribution, so future generations would have, as he said in his 2010 Nobel lecture, ‘a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme’,” Haley said in a statement.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to his beloved wife Liu Xia, herself under house arrest, his family and countrymen, and citizens of the world.”