BEIJING (AP) — The new U.S. ambassador to Beijing said Wednesday that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo should be allowed to receive treatment outside China after being diagnosed with cancer while in prison for advocating democratic reforms.
China should allow 61-year-old Liu to seek treatment elsewhere "if it would be of help," Ambassador Terry Branstad told reporters in his first public appearance since arriving in Beijing this week.
The former six-term Iowa governor appointed as envoy to China by President Donald Trump did not say if he'd spoken directly with Chinese authorities about the matter, emphasizing cooperation instead.
"It's important that we work together between our two countries to address these human rights issues," Branstad said.
Asked whether China and the U.S. have been in contact over Liu's fate, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing saw no reason for any such discussions.
"As we have said, one of the major duties of the U.S. ambassador in China is to cement friendship between the two countries and especially the two peoples, and enhance mutual understanding and political mutual trust," Lu said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
"We believe Ambassador Branstad is well aware of his duties," he said.
Liu was given a medical parole and hospitalized after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer on May 23. His wife has said in a video circulated by supporters that Liu's cancer has advanced beyond any potential treatment.
The writer and literary critic received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while serving an 11-year prison term for co-authoring Charter '08, a manifesto calling for an end to single-party rule in the Communist nation.
News of Liu's illness drew questions from his supporters and human rights advocates on whether China's government provided him with adequate care while incarcerated.
Chinese prisons are notorious for their harsh conditions, and it's common for released prisoners to return to society in a dangerously weakened state.
The Trump administration's handling of Liu's case could provide an early indication of how forcefully it is willing to push China on human rights.
On Monday, the State Department called for Liu's release as well as that of his wife, Liu Xia, who has lived for years under house arrest.
China should "provide them the protections and freedoms such as freedom of movement and access to medical care of his choosing, to which they're entitled under China's Constitution and medical system and international commitments," the statement said.
On Tuesday, the State Department downgraded China to the lowest ranking on human trafficking, after the Trump administration had previously avoided public criticism of Beijing on human rights.
China has in past released high-profile dissidents on medical grounds and immediately exiled them to the U.S., notably veteran democracy campaigner Wei Jingsheng in 1997 and a leader of the 1989 student pro-democracy protests, Wang Dan, in 1998.
However, the government of President Xi Jinping has been considerably tougher on such matters, forbidding many of its critics to travel abroad while it pursues a sweeping campaign against dissent.
The government, which rejects the label of political prisoner and refers to Liu as a mere criminal, has angrily denounced calls for his release as interference in China's internal affairs.