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China's most famous living dissident is dying of liver cancer. His name is Liu Xiaobo. And among other things, he called for an end to Communist one-party rule in China. In 2010, he received a Nobel Prize. He's also been in prison. Now he would like to get medical treatment outside of China, but China is reluctant to let him go. There was a time when Chinese authorities let dissidents go into exile but not so much anymore. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Liu Xiaobo's doctors said on Tuesday that he's in critical condition and his organs are failing. He's being treated at a hospital in northeast China's Shenyang city. On Saturday, doctors crowded around Liu's hospital bed. A man resembling German doctor Markus Buchler is seen on video speaking to Liu's wife, Liu Xia.
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MARKUS BUCHLER: It is very, very good that the doctors from China have asked us to come and to help. So they are very committed to the treatment of your husband.
KUHN: China's government apparently released this video to show that Liu is well cared for. Liu is on medical parole, serving an 11-year jail term for subversion. Although it's invited foreign doctors to help, Beijing has dismissed calls by foreign governments for Liu to be treated overseas. San Francisco-based human rights campaigner John Kamm says that Liu's hopes of getting out are slim, with one possible exception.
JOHN KAMM: What if Donald Trump were to pick up the phone with his buddy and say, look, how about it? Let's do a deal. That's the only chance we have right now.
KUHN: By buddy, Kamm means Chinese President Xi Jinping.
KAMM: Unless Xi Jinping sees why it is in his advantage to let Liu Xiaobo leave, why would he do it?
KUHN: For nearly three decades, Kamm has been as successful as anyone at finding out about Chinese political prisoners and getting them freed. But he says that's getting harder and harder to do.
KAMM: I've been asking about prisoners for a long time. And the channels are becoming more narrow. And I would say that the acts of clemency are becoming rarer.
KUHN: Kamm got into human rights in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when Western governments sanctioned China and its reputation took a drubbing. In the 1990s, China began releasing some political prisoners. This helped it to get some of what it wanted, such as membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the rights to host the Olympics in 2008.
Now China's economy is about 40 times its size in 1989. Instead of trying to attract foreign investment, China's now doling it out. Independent analyst Wu Qiang says China has few incentives left to bother with human rights diplomacy.
WU QIANG: (Through interpreter) The big question for the international community now is, what does China need that can be exchanged internationally strategically?
KUHN: Wu notes that China is preparing for a Communist Party Congress this fall that will decide the leadership lineup for years to come. And so its top priority is nipping any political challenges in the bud.
WU: (Through interpreter) They've established nearly totalitarian social controls, especially over dissidents, and they're very confident about this. They are not concerned that Liu Xiaobo will have any political impact if he lives in China.
KUHN: They would, of course, lose that control over Liu if he goes overseas. When China's showed prisoners clemency in the past, observers praised it as a sign of confidence. But Wu's point is that China now has a different kind of confidence - that it no longer needs to cave in to pressure from foreigners or give quarter to its enemies at home.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS'S "DRAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.