Australia has embarrassed itself with a timid, lightweight response to the effective state-sponsored murder of Chinese poet, political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died on July 13 as his body shut down in response to terminal liver cancer.

Liu was, as many of his obituaries have said, a moral giant of the very bravest of human beings and great citizens of modern China — a man now mentioned in the rarefied company of Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandela. He died under guard in hospital, having been admitted only two weeks earlier.

This is a life that must be celebrated, and the 61-year-old’s untimely, unnecessary death must not, in the end, have been in vain. Already the outpouring of grief — and anger — from within and outside China is shining a harsh light on his treatment and the Communist Party’s regime, which under Xi Jinping has become even harsher.

Yet all Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop could offer was the briefest of acknowledgement of his death and mounting concerns over his wife, Liu Xia, who has been under extralegal house arrest since 2010. And she did not acknowledge the party’s 18-year persecution of Liu — this was his third stint on prison.

Bishop said in a statement:

“I was saddened to learn of the death of Dr Liu Xiaobo, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. Our thoughts are with Dr Liu’s family and friends at this time. We urge China to remove all restrictions on the movement of his wife Ms Liu Xia.”

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Embarrassingly, the much-derided US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a stronger message.

It is not just individuals or organisations that the Communist Party punishes, but states as well. After handing Liu the Noble Prize, Norway was put in the diplomatic deep freeze and only let out last year. Still, the Nobel committee admirably stuck to its guns with its statement on Liu’s death. Perhaps that is what Bishop is concerned about? Perhaps she has been chided by the PM for her more aggressive previous Chinese commentary, including remarks saying China could not lead in Asia until it was democracy? Or perhaps Beijing has successfully cowed her.

But even the Nobel Committee whose prize caused so much trouble for Norway remained aggressive on the event of Liu’s death, including: “The Chinese government bears a heavy responsibility in the premature death of Liu Xiaobo.”

There is so much tragedy with Liu, it’s hard to know where to begin. It is beyond doubt that Liu was allowed to become ill to such an advanced stage without proper treatment. Every minute of his suffering was inflicted by the party and signed off on by its supreme leaders Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

Liu of course, was just one of many. Far too many of his like-minded friends, including human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, remain incarcerated or otherwise suppressed by the terrible system that caused his death. Pu himself is a diabetic, and in the months leading up to his own show trial in 2015, his family complained he was receiving inadequate treatment.

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As Jerome A. Cohen, one of the most distinguished Western academics in the field of Chinese law, noted on his blog, such treatment is tantamount to state-sponsored torture:

“Foreign governments have the right to complain about the People’s Republic of China’s denial of internationally-guaranteed human rights to the Chinese people. The PRC, for example, in the exercise of its vaunted sovereignty, chose to limit its sovereignty by ratifying the U.N. Convention against Torture that spells out in detail all the kinds of conduct that constitute internationally forbidden torture, mental as well as physical. The PRC’s mistreatment of its many political dissidents plainly violates this convention in many respects.

“The case of Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia, is an obvious example of the PRC subjecting to forbidden torture someone who has not even been accused of a crime or even legally detained. As to her husband, we don’t know the facts of his final imprisonment and the extent to which he was denied adequate medical treatment but it is widely suspected that the authorities at least demonstrated indifference to his increasingly dangerous medical condition and that its mistreatment of Liu Xiaobo could well be deemed a violation of the Convention against Torture.

“Of course, Liu Xiaobo’s criminal conviction was based on the regime’s suppression of his freedom of speech and the violations of criminal justice protections that marked his prosecution.”

These are the sorts of comments and sentiments a country like Australia should be expressing about the death of such and important figure in China.

As one commentator has noted, only two years separated President Xi Jinping and Liu yet there is a vast gulf in the difference of the two men’s understanding of human dignity and value.

In his written appeal against his sentence that would become his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Liu wrote:

“I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentenced me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities … I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints.

“China’s political reform should be gradual, peaceful, orderly and controllable and should be interactive, from above to below and from below to above … The order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy. So I oppose systems of government that are dictatorships or monopolies. This is not ‘inciting subversion of state power’. Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”

As we mourn the death of Liu and continue to be concerned about the welfare of his wife and so many others under the repressive heel of the Communist Party, we should also be wondering why the Australia government has blown a golden opportunity to remonstrate with the Communist Party about its appalling human rights record and the terrible treatment of its people.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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