Treatment of dying Nobel peace prize winner is emblematic of China’s iron rule. Tania Branigan on the remarkable man she nearly met – the day he was arrested

There was no sign of Liu Xiaobo in the Beijing coffee shop – a confusion over the place or time we had arranged to meet, I assumed. But he wasn’t answering his mobile phone and a call to his home brought worrying news: 10 police had arrived late the night before and taken him away.

Even then, the writer’s disappearance did not seem overly concerning. Chinese dissidents and activists were used to pressure from the authorities and brief detentions for questioning, or worse. But Liu enjoyed a relative degree of tolerance because of his high profile, though he’d been jailed over 1989’s Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests when he helped broker a peaceful exit from the square for the remaining demonstrators amid the bloody crackdown – and again in the 90s.

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