BEIJING — As Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington on Tuesday at the start of his state visit to the United States, life continued as usual at No. 9 South Yuyuantan St.
There, tucked somewhere behind the gate of a yellow-walled apartment complex, the wife of imprisoned Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is thought to be held under effective house arrest.
Liu Xia hasn't been charged with a crime or even accused of any by Chinese officials. Still, for more than three months, state security has walled her off from the outside world for no discernible reason other than that she's married to Liu Xiaobo, this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Liu himself is serving an 11-year prison term after he helped to draft a document that calls for more political freedoms in China.
The Chinese government in recent weeks eased the crackdown it launched against dissidents after Liu Xiaobo's Nobel award was announced Oct. 8, but human rights activists say the ongoing detention of Liu Xia makes clear the limits of official tolerance for civil liberties.
The Obama administration has signaled that it will bring up China's troubling human rights record during meetings with President Hu this week, including the plight of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, but it's not clear what impact that might have. Past protests by U.S. officials haven't shifted the Chinese government nor the Communist Party that runs it.
In the view of Pu Zhiqiang, a high-profile civil rights lawyer in Beijing, the sentencing of Liu Xiaobo and the harassment of his friends and family "shows that our society is not under the rule of law."
Liu Xia is allowed to leave her home only for supervised trips to visit her mother, according to a close relative of her husband's. Even that basic fact couldn't be verified with Liu Xia, who hasn't been heard from publicly since October. The phone number she once used is now out of service, and notes to her e-mail address go unanswered.
The relative asked that his name not be used, explaining that the family is in the delicate position of seeking permission for a visit with Liu Xiaobo in prison.
"We have applied to visit him, but we haven't gotten any reply," the relative said.
The government's decision to keep Liu Xia from public view is widely seen as an attempt to prevent her from talking about her husband's work, especially the manifesto that led to his imprisonment. Known as Charter 08, the document argues for, among other things, open elections, an independent judiciary and human rights guarantees.
Interviews with average Chinese in the area around the Liu home near central Beijing suggest that the approach has been effective. Most had never heard of Liu Xiaobo or Liu Xia, and those who had weren't sure about the details.
One woman, who was working in a small dry cleaning and alterations shop, recognized Liu Xiaobo's name.
"He won the Nobel Prize, and I've heard that he's in prison," said Fu Zhongxia, 36, who was sitting by a worn sewing machine. "But I don't know why he won the prize, or why he's in prison."
In a speech on China-America relations last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. officials would keep bringing up human rights despite Beijing's dislike of the topic.
"I know that many in China — not just in the government, but in the population at large — resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on sovereignty," Clinton said. "But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens. These are universal rights."
One day earlier, President Barack Obama hosted a meeting with human rights advocates who have extensive China-related experience. Columbia University Professor Andrew Nathan, one of those in attendance, said in a telephone interview this week that Liu Xia's case was a reminder that in China "there's really no limit on what the public security ... can do. They don't even have to arrest and sentence you."
Nathan is also a board member at Freedom House, a Washington-based group that monitors human rights across the world. In its annual report this year, the organization noted that of the 2.4 billion people who live in countries its survey designated as "not free," more than half live in China.
Liu Xiaoyuan, a Beijing lawyer and blogger who's known for his involvement in sensitive cases, said laws frequently were ignored when it came to corralling people who were seen as a threat to stability.
"Sometimes people are confined at home. Sometimes they are taken to a hotel," he said. "We can say the public security bureau is committing the crime of illegally detaining people."
He then reflected on what he'd just said and injected some hedge room: "I don't know if this can be considered a crime."
Li Heping, another rights lawyer in Beijing, was answering a reporter's question about Liu Xia's detention and what it says about the Chinese legal system when he paused to offer a clarification.
"These are very sensitive questions, and I should answer very carefully," he said. "As you know, my phone is being monitored."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog
Follow Tom on Twitter
McClatchy Newspapers 2010