U.S. hopes to see Chinese activist Liu treated for cancer 'elsewhere'

BEIJING (Reuters) - Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad said on Wednesday the United States would like to see Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Liu Xiaobo treated elsewhere for cancer, and that the two countries must work together on human rights.

Liu, 61, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power” after he helped write a petition known as “Charter 08” calling for sweeping political reforms.

He is being treated in a hospital in the northern city of Shenyang for late-stage liver cancer after he was granted medical parole, his lawyer told Reuters on Monday.

Branstad said his heart went out to Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, who has been under effective house arrest since her husband won the peace prize.

“We Americans would like to see him have the opportunity for treatment elsewhere if that could be of help,” Branstad said in his first remarks to journalists in Beijing since he was confirmed in May as President Donald Trump’s top representative to China.

“And because of the relationship I have with both President Xi and President Trump, I hope I can be a go-between that can help address some of these challenging issues in the future,” he said outside the ambassador’s residence in leafy central Beijing after arriving earlier on Tuesday.

Branstad, a former Iowa governor, has been described by Beijing as an “old friend” of China. He hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, then a county-level Communist Party leader, in Iowa in 1985, and again in 2012 when Xi was vice president.

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Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2010 for his activism in promoting human rights in China, which responded by freezing diplomatic ties with Norway. They normalized ties last December.

The prison bureau of Liaoning province said on Monday that Liu was being treated by eight “well-known tumour experts”, but Western politicians and rights activists have voiced concern about the quality of treatment.

A video of Liu Xia crying and talking about her husband’s condition was shared online late on Monday, saying doctors could not perform radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

A source close to the family said Liu was being treated using targeted therapy and that he and his wife wanted to return to Beijing for treatment but authorities rejected their request.

The U.S. Embassy called for Liu’s release on Tuesday but declined to comment on whether it was speaking with China about him being transferred to the United States for treatment. The embassy said its main focus was that Liu be “released on his own recognizance”.

Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Reuters late on Tuesday that he had been authorized by several people close to the family to say that Liu Xia had told Chinese authorities she wants her husband to receive medical treatment abroad.

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Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times, published by the official People’s Daily, said there was a precedent for prisoners on medical parole to be allowed overseas for treatment, but that as a Nobel Laureate Liu “could motivate more Western public opinion attacks against China than other dissidents”.

“If he is willing to go abroad, that is perhaps partly out of the despair he feels from being marginalized by Chinese society and constitutional order,” the newspaper said.

China has acknowledged problems of mistreatment in the criminal justice system in the past and has repeatedly vowed to crack down to address them. It has also said other countries should not use individual cases to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

“Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese citizen. Why should there be discussions with other countries about the issue of a Chinese citizen who is serving his sentence?” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a regular briefing when asked about Branstad’s remarks.

Lu said he believed the ambassador was “very clear about his duties” to increase mutual understanding and political trust.

(This story corrects translation of ministry spokesman’s comments in penultimate paragraph to “serving his sentence” not “in a bad way”)

Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Venus Wu in Hong Kong and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Paul Tait