China jailed the author over an appeal for peaceful democratic reform. It is too late to help him – but governments must speak out for his wife, Liu Xia, and other political prisoners

Not since Nazi Germany had a country allowed a Nobel peace laureate to die in custody – until today. Liu Xiaobo was still held over his peaceful call for democratic reform, made almost nine years ago, when he died in hospital. That is China’s shame. But it is also a stain on the world’s conscience. Germany, to its credit, worked hard for his release; the US, Canada and EU said he should be allowed to leave China for treatment. But the only leader to make a personal, public call for his freedom was Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. The Norwegian Nobel committee is right to lament the “belated, hesitant” reactions to news of his terminal illness. Governments weighed trade opportunities while Chinese citizens pressed his case at personal risk.

It is too late now. The empty chair left at the Nobel ceremony will never be occupied. The tardy and muted international response did not only let Mr Liu down. The author was exceptional in his intelligence, sustained courage and humanity: in his final statement to his trial, he insisted he had no enemies and no hatred. Mr Liu was an inspiration to those fighting for rights in China – even if the authorities erased him from the broader consciousness. But he also represented the lawyers, dissidents and campaigners who together carved out a greater space for expression and activism. His punitive sentence for “inciting subversion” in 2008 was a turning point. The ensuing crackdown has seen many more people detained and jailed and their families too have suffered. The international community has in general offered minimal protest, letting Beijing carry on without even the cost of embarrassment. China may throw the odd bone in return; it does not guarantee long-term nourishment. Indeed, the swift submission on human rights has told it that countries will cave on issues when enough pressure is applied.

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