“When Charter 08 was signed, there was a yearning for more open dialogue and talk about a peaceful societal transition,” said one of the signatories, Ai Xiaoming, a scholar and documentary filmmaker in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. “But now there is even more strict social control, and the room for civil society has shrunk significantly.”
Ms. Ai, who met Mr. Liu before his imprisonment, also expressed guilt that he alone among the organizers had been convicted and sentenced so harshly — to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” — though many others also faced harassment that forced them underground or out of the country.
International attention — Mr. Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 — gave Ms. Ai and others hope of protecting him, but the world moved on, even as China tightened its controls over nonprofit organizations and moved to arrest lawyers.
“It’s sad to see he’s no longer the center of attention,” Ms. Ai said in a telephone interview. “We had a kind of illusion that the government would be nice to him given his international influence. Now I doubt that was the case.”
Mr. Liu’s wife, the poet and photographer Liu Xia, has been under strict house arrest in Beijing since his Nobel Prize was announced. Friends circulated a cellphone video on Monday in which a crying Ms. Liu said doctors “can’t operate, can’t use radiotherapy, can’t use chemotherapy” to treat her husband’s cancer.
Mr. Liu’s Nobel Prize — in recognition of “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” — focused attention on his fate, but over the years he was sidelined if not forgotten by the pragmatic needs of countries that felt no choice but to work with China, not criticize it.
China’s response to the prize illustrated the risks of going against it. Norway’s government has no say in who wins the prize, but it is awarded by a five-person committee chosen by the Norwegian Parliament. China swiftly cut imports of Norwegian salmon, depriving Norway of its largest market.
China wields those sorts of economic levers with great effect, Graham T. Allison argues in a new book, “Destined for War,” about the potential collision of the United States and a rising China.
“Few governments have had the capabilities or will to resist,” Mr. Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, said by email from Dalian, China, where he was attending the World Economic Forum’s annual summer meeting.
In the case of Norway, its diplomats persuaded China to restore full relations after making a series of conciliatory gestures that dismayed human rights campaigners there and in China.
For the United States, the focus on China’s record of human rights has become increasingly muted, especially under President Trump, reflecting the conflicting goals of doing business with China.
“China is very smart about this,” said Hu Jia, a rights advocate in Beijing. He noted how Greece, which is courting Chinese investment, recently thwarted a European Union effort to make a statement about human rights abuses in specific countries to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“Because of issues like economic cooperation, security, North Korea and terrorism, leaders aren’t as willing to raise human rights problems with China,” Mr. Hu said.
Charter 08 was signed in the twilight of the administration of President George W. Bush, who used his second term to advance what the White House promoted as a “Freedom Agenda” in the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Barack Obama vocally championed human rights around the world, but he pursued the issue less vigorously when it came to China.
Mr. Obama praised Mr. Liu’s Nobel Prize, but when the Senate passed legislation that would have renamed a street in front of China’s embassy in Washington after him, the administration signaled that Mr. Obama would veto it. The bill quietly died in the Republican-controlled House after Mr. Trump’s election last fall.
Mr. Trump and his advisers have clearly indicated that human rights are less important on the president’s agenda than security and trade matters.
“Human rights has retreated in terms of people’s interest in China,” said Jerome Cohen, director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University’s School of Law.
The fear of being excluded from China’s market is palpable. “Everybody is under pressure from constituents to have a piece of the action,” Mr. Cohen said. “Of course, the U.S. no longer asks other countries to do anything, because we decided it’s not important for our purposes.”
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, going against tradition, did not introduce his department’s annual human rights report in March, though he was scheduled to appear with Ivanka Trump at the department on Tuesday to introduce a similar report on human trafficking. For the first time, the department plans to reduce China’s rating to the lowest tier of countries, signaling that it has exerted minimal effort to combat trafficking, The Associated Press reported.
In Beijing on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the United States Embassy, Mary Beth Polley, said the United States had called on China to release Mr. Liu and his wife and provide them freedom of movement and access to medical care of their choosing.
As news of Mr. Liu’s illness emerged, China’s beleaguered democracy advocates issued a new petition, one that was far more modest than Charter 08. It simply called for Mr. Liu and his wife to be unconditionally released and urged that he be given the medical treatment he needed. Within hours it had more than 400 signatures.
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