Stunned that reporters were able to visit her, Liu Xia trembled uncontrollably and cried Thursday as she described how absurd and emotionally draining her confinement under house arrest has been in the two years since her jailed activist husband, Liu Xiaobo, was named a Nobel Peace laureate.
In her first interview in 26 months, Mrs. Liu spoke briefly with journalists from The Associated Press who managed to visit her apartment while the guards who watch it apparently stepped away for lunch. Her voice shook and she was breathless from disbelief at receiving unexpected visitors.
Liu said her continuing house arrest has been painfully surreal and in stark contrast to Beijing's celebratory response to this year's Chinese victory among the Nobels — literature prize winner Mo Yan. Liu said she has been confined to her duplex apartment in downtown Beijing with no Internet or outside phone line and is only allowed weekly trips to buy groceries and visit her parents.
"We live in such an absurd place," she said. "It is so absurd. I felt I was a person emotionally prepared to respond to the consequences of Liu Xiaobo winning the prize. But after he won the prize, I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this."
Once a month, she is taken to see her husband in prison. It wasn't clear when Liu Xia started regular visits with her husband or if they would continue following her interview. She was denied visits for more than a year after she saw him two days after his Nobel win and emerged to tell the world that he had dedicated the award to those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
Liu Xiaobo is four years into an 11-year prison term for subversion for authoring and disseminating a programmatic call for democracy, Charter '08. In awarding him the peace prize, the Nobel committee cited that proposal and his two decades of nonviolent struggle for civil rights.
Beijing condemned Liu's 2010 award, saying it tarnished the committee's reputation to bestow it on a jailed criminal. That fury was replaced with jubilation and pride this year, after the announcement that Mr. Mo – who has been embraced by China's communist government – had been named winner of the Nobel literature prize.
The authoritarian government's detention of the Liu couple, one in a prison 280 miles northeast of Beijing and the other in a fifth-floor apartment in the capital, underscores its determination to keep the 57-year-old peace laureate from becoming an inspiration to other Chinese, either by himself or through her.
Her treatment has been called by rights groups the most severe retaliation by a government given to a Nobel winner's family.
Though she is forbidden to discuss the specifics of her situation with her husband, Liu says he knows that she is also under detention.
"He understands more or less," she said. "I told him: 'I am going through what you are going through, almost.'"
Liu, dressed in a track suit and slippers, was shaken to find several AP journalists at her door. Her first reaction was to put her hands to her head and ask several times, "How did you manage to come up? How did you manage?"
Around midday, the guards who keep a 24-hour watch on the main entrance of Liu's building had left their station — a cot with blankets where they sit and sleep.
Liu appeared frail and explained that she has a back injury that frequently keeps her confined to bed. Her hair was shaved close to her head, a severe look that she has worn since before her husband was jailed in 2009.
A poet, photographer and painter, Liu Xia said she spends her time reading and sometimes painting. She last saw her husband a few weeks ago and said he was in good health but she couldn't remember the exact date of the visit.
"I don't keep track of the days anymore," she said. "That's how it is."