By Benjamin Kang Lim and Philip Wen
BEIJING (Reuters) - Liu Xiaobo was one of the "Four Gentlemen" of Tiananmen Square, the group that staged a hunger strike in the final days of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China and tried to hold off tanks and troops moving in to crush the student-led movement.
Liu, who died in state custody last week, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and was regarded as China's best-known dissident. But the other three have largely faded from the public eye and none have publicly commented on Liu or his death.
Liu's death came as a campaign under President Xi Jinping to quash dissent is gathering strength. Xi has overseen a raft of legislation to bolster national security ahead of a Communist Party congress to be held later this year, where he is expected to further consolidate power.
The best known of the "Four Gentlemen" in 1989 was Hou Dejian, a Taiwanese singer who defected to China before the Tiananmen protests and was later exiled for almost two decades. Zhou Duo, the oldest of the group, remains under police surveillance. The fourth, Gao Xin, lives in the United States.
"I am sorry, I've decided not to talk," Hou told Reuters after learning of Liu's death.
His song "Descendants of the Dragon" was a huge hit in the Chinese music world when it was first released in Taiwan in 1980 and became an anthem of the Tiananmen protests.
After the protests, Hou was sent back to Taiwan, his songs banned on Chinese state radio and television and his assets seized.
But he was quietly allowed back in 2006, and now lives in Beijing, working as a music adviser to a Chinese cable television network.
The ban on "Descendants of the Dragon" was eased and Hou appeared on stage at a concert at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing in 2011.
Hou, who turns 61 on October 1 this year, is unwell, said Australian author Linda Jaivin, who has written a book on him.
"He basically retired from public life," she said in an interview, adding that his health began to suffer soon after he was sent back to Taiwan. "I think his health also mandated him taking steps back."
Zhou Duo, who also lives in Beijing, has been forced by police to go out of town on an all expenses paid "holiday" since June 29, ostensibly to prevent him from speaking to foreign media as Liu's condition deteriorated, fellow dissidents said.
Forced "holidays" and house arrest have become the norm for Zhou in the run-up to politically sensitive events, they said.
Reached via China's instant messaging app WeChat, Zhou, 70, declined a Reuters interview request.
Zhou said in a 2009 essay that he has staged a one-day hunger strike at his Beijing home on June 4 every year to commemorate the Tiananmen victims.
He has written three books about "gradual democracy", that are available in electronic form but have not been published.
The fourth hunger striker, Gao Xin, then Liu's fellow lecturer at Beijing Normal University and a Communist Party member, has been out of touch with the dissident community.
Gao left China in 1991 and was once a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies. He writes a column for U.S.-based Radio Free Asia.
A prolific writer, Gao has published about 10 Chinese-language books on elite Chinese politics, including co-authoring "Communist China’s Princelings", a best seller about the sons and daughters of China’s incumbent, retired and late political leaders.
He could not be reached for comment. An Internet search showed he has not written anything about Liu’s death.
LAST TO LEAVE
In June, 1989, the four men were among the last to leave Tiananmen Square.
China's Communist rulers sent troops and tanks to quell the protests in and around the square on the night of June 3/4. No official death toll has been given but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.
Zhou has said he and Hou walked up to martial-law troops the evening before the crackdown and negotiated with the soldiers to allow protesters to leave the square before they swept in. They may have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.
On the square, Liu and Gao pleaded with student protesters and a "suicide squad" of angry civilians armed with rocks, clubs, kitchen knives, petrol bombs and a submachine gun snatched from troops to leave the square.
It was a "miracle" the four men pulled it off, Zhou wrote in 2009, referring to negotiations with the troops.
After the crackdown, the four men regrouped in the apartment of Nick Jose, a counselor at the Australian embassy.
On June 6, Liu declined an offer of asylum at the Australian embassy, Jose said in an interview, and was arrested the same evening.
A year later, Hou, Zhou and Gao were detained before a scheduled joint news conference at which they planned to appeal for amnesty for political prisoners, in particular Liu. They were released about three weeks later but Hou was soon deported back to Taiwan.
Liu spent nearly 13 years in custody before he died of liver
Chinese authorities denied his request to receive medical treatment abroad and his cremated remains were scattered at sea, a move described by a family friend as an attempt to erase any memory of him.
"We are just a tiny band," Zhou wrote last year, although it was unclear if he was referring to Chinese dissidents or to the "Four Gentlemen".
"Do not think we represent the will of the people. At most, we can console ourselves and say: We represent the future - the distant future."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)