Liu Xiaobo was granted medical parole “recently,” according to an official statement posted on the website of the Liaoning Province Prison Administration Bureau.
It confirmed reports that he was suffering from liver cancer and moved to the Number One Hospital of the China Medical University where he was treated by a team of “eight nationally recognised specialists”.
In 2008 Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison charged with “subversion” after his participation in the drafting of Charter '08, whi ch, among other things, called for “separation of powers”, “independent judiciary”, “guarantee of human rights” and “a federal republic” - questions that crossed red lines set by the Chinese Communist Party, which is not prepared to contemplate any form of power sharing.
He was released just four days before the 20th anniversary of the handover of British crown colony Hong Kong to Beijing.
Critics in Hong Kong say the date of Liu Xiaobo’s release was planned.
“It is more than coincidental,” says Claudia Mo, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council for the Hong Kong First organisation. “We have 365 days a year to have Liu Xiaobo out of prison, and [it happened] four days before Hong Kong’s so-called 20th anniversary.
“I think they want to make sure that Liu Xiaobo won’t die in prison," she comments. "But, secondly, it is to dilute international attention from Hong Kong. [Chinese president] Xi Jinping is in town. They try to spin out any international interest on Hong Kong as well, so they [kill] two birds with one stone.”
Dissidents freed then jailed again
Beijing has often used high-profile imprisoned dissidents as bargaining chips.
In one notorious example in late 1993, China briefly released top dissident Wei Jingsheng from a 15-year jail term on the eve of a decision by the International Olympic Committee on whether the 2000 Olympics would take place in Beijing.
Wei continued to criticise the government, Beijing did not win the right to organise the 2000 Olympics and he was sent back to jail for another 15 years.
China has also released dissidents before important negotiations, like those on the Most Favored Nation status, or high-profile international visits.
But over the years, Beijing's international influence and standing has incresed and its use of bargaining with dissidents decreased.
Attempts to take Liu for treatment abroad
Human rights activists are now trying to get Liu Xiaobo and also his wife Liu Xia, out of the country, so he can be treated.
"We are happy to hear that he has been released,” says James Tager of PEN America’s Free Expression Program, “but devastated to learn that it is under these conditions with this grave health issue."
Liu should never have been imprisoned in the first place, he argues. "He should be allowed to be with family members, including his wife Liu Xia, who has not seen him in a long time. He should be able and allowed to travel outside of the country including to receive the medical care that he chooses and we call on the Chinese authorities to allow him to do that."
What does Liu stand for?
Liu Xiaobo, a 2010 Nobel Peace prize winner, has become an international symbol for those in China who speak out and as a result find themselves in jail.
But do we really know what he stands for?
“Liu Xiaobo advocated in effect regime change in China,” says Barry Sautman, political scientist with the Hong Kong University for Science and Technology. “He wanted to establish a liberal democratic regime in China.
"If we look at him in an international context, he appears to be a firm backer of US foreign policy. He supported all the wars launched by the US, including the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq and he generally had a favorable attitude towards the history of colonialism, both with regard to British colonialism in Hong Kong and even the Japanese presence in China.”
That is no reason to send a man to jail for 11 years and release him only when he is serioulsy ill and it is probably too late to cure him, Sautman says.
“It was utterly counterproductive to put Liu Xiaobo in jail. It does no good at all to just put him away in jail and not in fact take on the ideas that Liu Xiaobo propagated, which were ideas that would be extremely unpopular among the majority of people in China," he aergues pointing to "opinion polls amongst the young."
For Liu Xiaobo it may be too late, even if Beijing allows him to fly to the US for medical treatment.
And it remains to be seen if he will be allowed to go abroad.
“In the past prisoners granted medical parole have been allowed to go abroad for medical treatment,” says executive director John Kamm of the Dui Hua foundation that works to get better treatment for prisoners in China.
“Common in the early years of the last decade, a prisoner granted medical parole has rarely been allowed to go abroad for medical treatment in recent years.” he says in a statement on his foundation’s website.