Looking for Liu Xiaobo? Chinese police keep close watch

Security guards and plainclothes police stand guard at the entrance of Xihe funeral parlor and cemetary in Shenyang where Liu Xiaobo's body was believed to have been taken.-AFP

Shenyang (China) (AFP) - A group of plainclothes officers appeared like ghosts from behind tombstones next to the crematorium where the body of China's most prominent dissident was rumoured to have been taken after his death.

It was a lot of security for a place that may not even have held Liu Xiaobo's body, offering a reminder of the government's determination to make sure that reporters remained far away from the Nobel laureate and his family -- even in death.

Before Liu lost his battle to liver cancer Thursday, around 10 officers stood guard at the entrance of the oncology unit on the 23rd floor of his hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang.

They provided backup for a no-nonsense nurse who stopped anyone who was not visiting one of the patients listed on her clipboard.

One name was conspicuously absent: Liu Xiaobo.

It was not the only place his name was missing. The government has tried to erase the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest veteran, making sure he is rarely spoken about online or in official media.

A half dozen people receiving treatment or waiting on rows of metal chairs at the First Hospital of China Medical University said they had never heard of the man whose plight was making international headlines.

"Who is he? An internet celebrity?" shopkeeper Liu Weiwu -- no relation to the laureate -- asked a block away from the hospital where a giant statue of Mao stands with arms outstretched as if blessing the facility.

Those who knew Liu's name -- mainly reporters -- were escorted everywhere by plainclothes men, who shamelessly followed them into restaurants and even bathrooms.

A group of three men loitered in a room directly across from an AFP journalist's, leaving the door open to keep tabs on his movements.

"We want you to know that we're only here for your safety," one man said as he brushed aside a smartphone used to record him.

As rumours about Liu's death spread, journalists received strange calls to their hotel rooms while hotel staff came knocking to announce they would be testing smoke detectors or suspending meal services later in the week.

After Liu's death was confirmed, officials suddenly announced his doctors would hold a press conference -- a surprising development after days spent constantly checking the hospital's website for updates on the laureate's health.

The plainclothes men were there, too: more than a dozen of them crowded the small entrance to the conference room as people checked in.

The doctors answered questions about Liu's health and his moving last words to his wife: "live well."

But one thing remained a mystery: Why was his name absent from the hospital's computer system?

Doctor Liu Yunpeng blamed the discrepancy on the high volume of patients: "I'm not sure if our medical staff can keep such a clear record of who they all are. That seems pretty impossible, doesn't it?"

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