Judging by her apartment on the eve of her departure from Beijing to Germany, Liu Xia seemed completely unaware of her impending freedom — or perhaps unwilling to believe it.
AFP on Monday evaded tight security to gain rare access to the fifth-floor duplex apartment where the poet has been held under de facto house arrest since her dissident husband Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
No bags or boxes had been packed in her wood-panelled, booklined home.
Instead, in the centre of her living room stood a large, unfinished white canvas, a square half-filled with cramped black numbers, painted obsessively into orderly rows: “20170713, 20170713…”
“It’s the date of Liu Xiaobo’s death,” she explained.
On an opposite wall, beneath prominent photos of her husband in happier times, she’d propped up another of her paintings — a dark grey expanse bisected by large black blotches.
“It’s the closing of a tomb,” she said of the abstract oeuvre.
Liu spoke in barely audible whispers, directly up against the AFP reporter’s ear.
“They can hear everything that goes on in this apartment,” she cautioned.
The 57-year-old gave no indication she knew anything of her imminent trip and declined to give a formal interview, citing fears for the safety of her younger brother.
A friend who asked not to be named told AFP Tuesday that she had in fact been issued a passport last week.
Chinese authorities have consistently maintained Liu was free but imposed severe restrictions on her movement and placed her under constant surveillance.
Sparse light entered her apartment through the kitchen window, which faces a park encircled by barbed wire-topped fences.
But the rest of the apartment’s curtains were tightly drawn.
On one shuttered window pane, Liu had written the Chinese characters for “freedom, freedom, freedom” in a lop-sided scrawl.
Drugs and hallucinations
Liu has suffered from “very severe” depression, close friend Ye Du said before her departure, adding she would “sometimes faint.”
Lately she’d been battling suicidal thoughts and become hooked on medication to fight depression and hallucinations, according to her Berlin-based friend Liao Yiwu.
“I think it would take her at least a year to return to a normal, healthy state,” he said.
Liu was dressed in multiple layers and a long-sleeved blue gown, even though the air conditioning in her house wasn’t turned on against the sticky summer humidity.
Even through the thick fabric, her arms felt thin to the bone.
Ye Du told AFP that she had been permitted to leave the apartment for a few days each month to see her brother, with a police escort.
Authorities had allowed her a landline but no mobile phone, which might have provided access to encrypted communication apps, he said.
Liu said no friends were allowed into her home.
She appeared surprised and unnerved to see foreign reporters, but also immediately warm and welcoming, communicating much in silence via laughs and tight hand squeezes.
She declined any photographs being taken inside the apartment.
Liao explained that Liu had her hopes of leaving raised and dashed repeatedly since her husband’s passing.
“She’s packed up her things so many times, but the government has always acted unscrupulously. There have been endless excuses,” said Liao.
‘A writer is just a writer’
On Monday, Liu Xia’s apartment compound was serene, a normal Beijing scene — except for the five or more plainclothes men standing constant watch in front of her building, one sporting an earpiece.
Retirees strolled through the leafy lanes with their teddy bear poodles, while a pair of women carried home shopping bags full of lychees and spring onions, toddlers in tow.
In the narrow entry to Liu’s building, two dirty makeshift beds had been set up for those tasked to watch her around the clock.
An elderly neighbour who had known Liu and her parents for nearly two decades said he wasn’t bothered by the security.
They helped to maintain “a quiet social order” — and prevent hordes of journalists from rushing in, as had happened in the past.
He said he sometimes encountered Liu while shopping or walking in the park, but had no real sympathy for her situation.
“Sure, a writer is just a writer, but you can’t interfere in your country’s interests. Every country has its rules, and if you break them, you have to pay up,” he said.
Yet Liu Xia has been charged with no crime, and told Liao recently in an emotional call that her only possible offence is “loving Liu Xiaobo.”
“In the long run, what political threat can she pose?” asked Liao.
“She has been through so much, and been by Xiaobo’s side for so many years. No one has the right to ask her to do anything.”