New U.S. Ambassador Risks China’s Ire With Support for Liu Xiaobo

  • Branstad urges treatment abroad for ailing Peace Prize winner
  • Case poses first diplomatic challenge for new U.S. ambassador

U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad urged China to let ailing rights advocate Liu Xiaobo seek cancer treatment elsewhere, as the case emerged as a diplomatic test for the new American envoy.

Branstad, a former Iowa governor, told reporters Wednesday in Beijing that he hoped the two sides could work together to address Liu’s medical parole. The 61-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner has been released from prison and is being treated for late-stage liver cancer at a university hospital in northeastern Liaoning province.

Terry Branstad in Beijing on June 28.

Photographer: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s very serious,” Branstad said in his first public remarks since arriving at the U.S. Embassy. “Obviously, our heart goes out to him and his wife and we’re interested in doing what can be done to see if it’s possible. We Americans would like to see him have the opportunity for treatment elsewhere, if that could be of help.”

Liu’s plight poses an early challenge for Branstad amid signs that the honeymoon between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping is fading. Trump indicated last week that his patience with Beijing’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was flagging, and a U.S. human-trafficking report Tuesday listed China among the world’s worst offenders.

Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for inciting subversion of state power after co-authoring “Charter 08,” a pro-democracy manifesto urging the end of one-party rule. He became China’s most famous political prisoner after he was represented by an empty chair during a Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in 2010.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang refused to comment Wednesday on whether Liu would be allowed overseas treatment because China views the activist’s case as an internal matter.

“The U.S. ambassador to China’s responsibility and duty is to enable and enhance mutual trust and friendship between the two countries, so that the two countries can cooperate on the basis of mutual respect,” Lu said at a regular briefing in Beijing. “I believe Ambassador Branstad is very clear about his duties.”

‘Old Friend’

Branstad, who fielded questions about Liu while introducing his family at his official residence, cited his relationship with Xi as an asset to help him manage difficult issues such as human rights and trade. The pair first met in 1985 and Beijing officials refer to the envoy as an “old friend of the Chinese People,” a designation reserved for foreign figures who’ve demonstrated a particular understanding of the country.

“We hope to continue to look at ways that we can reduce trade barriers for the benefit of the United States and the benefit of China, as well as increasing not only trade but opportunities for consumers and for jobs in our countries,” Branstad said. Among his first meetings will be accompanying U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Han Changfu.

On Monday, the Liaoning Prison Administrative Bureau posted a statement confirming that Liu had been diagnosed with liver cancer and recently granted medical parole. The bureau said Liu was being treated by a team of eight oncologists.

Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel committee awarded Liu the peace prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” In response, China suspended ties with Norway and froze free-trade talks, hurting sales of Norwegian salmon in the world’s most populous country. The two nations only mended fences last year.

It’s regrettable that it “had to take a serious illness for the Chinese authorities to release him,” the Nobel Committee in Oslo said Monday.

“The committee hopes he will now be unconditionally freed and given the opportunity to obtain the best possible treatment for his illness, whether it be in China or abroad,” it said. “Finally, we want to remind that Liu Xiaobo has a standing invitation to come to Oslo to receive our praise.”

— With assistance by Peter Martin

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