The death of Liu Xiaobo deprives China’s dissident movement of a crucial figurehead at a time when political activism on the mainland is being forced ever deeper underground, and pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong are under threat.
The world had not heard from Nobel laureate Liu since he was jailed in 2009 for writing a petition calling for political reform, but he remained an influential heavyweight of China’s democracy movement and an inspiration for opponents of the Communist-ruled system.
His death in custody from cancer last week triggered rage and frustration among the dissident community but also a sense of hopelessness as they face hardened repression under China’s President Xi Jinping.
“When the Chinese authorities can so easily control life and death, people are more afraid to fight,” said activist Su Yutong, who fled to Germany after being repeatedly detained and questioned over her work at an NGO.
“They see that even a Nobel Peace Prize winner can die in jail.”
There are fears that Liu’s supporters will now be targeted, particularly his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since 2010.
Veteran China specialist Willy Lam said most of Liu’s friends were already under 24-hour surveillance and that the dissident community in general was “highly demoralised”.
“They realise they are going through a long winter with no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lam, a politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The fact that support from the international community is outweighed by the desire of foreign governments to keep Beijing onside has also hit hard, said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting scholar at Princeton University.
“If the West is reluctant to anger China, there will be no hope,” Teng told AFP.
However, some say they will brave it out.
One of the country’s most prominent social activists Hu Jia, 43, has vowed not to leave China despite being under police surveillance since his release from prison six years ago.
“I want to stay and make an impact on the country,” he told AFP.
HONG KONG REMEMBERS
Liu’s death prompted an outpouring of grief in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where pro-democracy forces must also contend with an increasingly assertive Beijing.
“We have to face the same political system and oppression,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu.
“There used to be some distance, but now it’s more intimately felt.”
A day after Liu died, Hong Kong’s High Court disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers from parliament following an unprecedented intervention from Beijing over the way they incorporated protests into their oaths of office last year.
Two lawmakers who advocate complete independence for Hong Kong — a concept that infuriates China — had already been ousted from the legislature.
Hong Kong still enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland — thousands gathered for a memorial march to Liu on Saturday, while over the border even online tributes to him were removed.
But a string of incidents, including the disappearance of a city bookseller and a reclusive mainland tycoon, have heightened concerns of Beijing’s political overreach.
When it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” deal, some hoped Hong Kong’s colonial institutions, such as an independent judiciary and partially elected legislature, would lead to liberalisation over the border.
However, as China’s wealth and global clout skyrocketed, Hong Kong’s influence waned. Now it is seen by Beijing as a hotbed of subversion, particularly since mass protests calling for more democratic reform in 2014.
Xi warned any challenge to Beijing’s control over Hong Kong crossed a “red line” earlier this month when he visited the city to mark 20 years since the handover.
Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, described the current political environment as “increasingly circumscribed”.
“It remains to be seen if (the democracy movement) feels it can advance its agenda through the ‘legitimate’ political process. And if not will there be a resurgence of street politics?” asked Sullivan.
The movement itself is struggling for direction, having splintered between veteran activists calling for change across China and younger Hong Kong-centric “localists” who say the city must just fight for itself.
Analysts agree that by-elections for the seats of the ousted lawmakers will prove whether or not the pro-democracy message is alive and kicking.
Lawmaker Chu says the movement needs a clearer vision, but must also accept that change will not come quickly.
“Liu Xiaobo persevered, sacrificing even his life, not because he knew he would succeed but because he saw himself as part of a long-term process,” Chu told AFP.
“Maybe Hong Kong is like this too. It’s not about setting a goal for victory at a certain time.”