Beijing, July 11: As the life ebbs from Liu Xiaobo, China's most famous dissident and only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a battle is shaping up over his life, his legacy, his words and maybe even his remains.
It is a battle that other countries are largely sitting out, even though Liu could become the first Nobel laureate to die in state custody since Carl von Ossietzky, the German pacifist and foe of Nazism who died under guard in 1938.
The tepid international response to Liu's case is a reflection of China's rising power, and its ability to deflect pressure over its human rights record.
The Chinese government has sequestered Liu in a hospital room in northeast China and refused his request to go abroad for treatment, saying it wants to ensure that he receives the best care for his terminal liver cancer.
The hospital is surrounded by guards, and Liu has been filmed lying still and frail in his bed. The footage, which shows him surrounded by doctors praising his medical care, was released without his permission for propaganda purposes.
Liu's supporters have expressed outrage, saying the government wants to control his last days in defiance of his lifelong cause: the right of the individual to live, speak and remember, free of authoritarian control and censorship.
"The key is control of his talk - they don't want him to be able to speak freely," said Perry Link, a professor of Chinese at the University of California, Riverside, who edited an English-language selection of Liu's essays and poems. "If he's let out for treatment, he could talk, and that's what the regime is afraid of."
Liu has written has about "angry ghosts" who denounce official misdeeds from the grave, and Beijing seems fearful that he will become one of them, inspiring opposition even in his afterlife. Today, the hospital that is treating Liu said he had septic shock and organ dysfunction, suggesting his condition was grim.
The panoply of state censorship and propaganda around Liu is testament to his tenacious influence, almost seven years after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, nearly a decade after he was last detained and sentenced to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion, and 28 years after the Communist Party denounced him as a seditious "black hand" for backing the student protests that swept China in 1989.
Liu has not been allowed to speak freely since he was arrested in late 2008, and his wife, Liu Xia, has been under heavy police surveillance since 2010, when he was awarded the Nobel medal. But lately, the Chinese authorities have released images and videos abroad to make the case that the couple are contented and cooperative.
"They want everything to be controllable, and if he went abroad, he would lie beyond their control," Cui Weiping, a retired professor of Chinese literature and friend of Liu, said from Los Angeles, where she now lives. "This has always been the purge approach for dealing with dissidents - minimise their influence so they don't become a focus."
Yet while the government wants Liu to stay silent and to ensure that his legacy fades as quickly as possible, his supporters have mobilised, despite intense restrictions and police warnings.
They want to win him the right to speak out, go abroad for palliative treatment and decide how he is memorialised.
Some sympathisers of Liu have tried to visit him in his hospital, where the police blocked their way; some organised a petition calling for him to be given freedom at the end of his life.
Longtime friends of Liu have been warned not to speak out or placed under police watch, including Zhou Duo, a scholar who joined Liu on Tiananmen Square on June 3, 1989, as armed soldiers closed in, when they and two other friends negotiated the safe passage of protesters who were still there.
"To make Liu Xiaobo spend his final time like this doesn't bring honour to the government, but they'll stick to their ways," said Wen Kejian, a friend of Liu who unsuccessfully tried to visit him in the hospital.
"I think the chances that we'll get what he wants are slim - that would require a dramatic change in the system - but we must try our best."