A Chinese hospital says the country's best-known political prisoner is now in critical condition, barely a day after Western doctors declared he was capable of travelling to a foreign country for medical treatment.
Diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, have urged Chinese authorities to let them leave China to seek overseas medical care.
On Monday afternoon, however, the hospital where he is being held said that his health had worsened, releasing a statement that a Chinese expert group had declared him to be in critical condition.
Mr. Liu can no longer receive radiotherapy, the hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang said, adding that his blood pressure should be monitored and he should be treated for infections.
Mr. Liu was given medical release from prison in late June.
Since then, his condition and treatment have become a matter of intense international scrutiny and criticism.
"His illness is very serious," said Mo Shaoping, his long-time lawyer. "The key is the attitude of the Chinese authorities, whether to let him go or not."
Mr. Liu was examined this weekend by a pair of foreign doctors and told them, in English, that he wants to leave China for treatment, Mr. Mo said.
Those doctors, cancer specialists Joseph Herman and Markus Buchler, had declared him medically fit to travel.
"Both physicians believe Mr. Liu can be safely transported with appropriate medical evacuation care and support," the doctors, from the University of Texas and Heidelberg University, said in a statement Sunday.
Any medical evacuation, they said, "would have to take place as quickly as possible."
Both Heidelberg University and the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas have offered to give "Mr. Liu the best care possible."
Their diagnosis contradicted Chinese authorities and medical experts, who have said Mr. Liu's condition does not allow him to travel.
In late 2008, Mr. Liu co-authored Charter 08, a lengthy document that decried the "disastrous" modernization of China under the Communist Party, which "stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse." He was soon after sent to prison for 11 years, and was represented by an empty chair when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
China's treatment of Mr. Liu has provoked international censure, with the European Union calling for him to be let out of the country for treatment.
China's Foreign Ministry has bristled at the condemnation, with spokesman Geng Shuang repeatedly saying Monday that, "China is a country of rule by law, and everyone is equal before the law."
He urged the international community to back off.
"We hope that the countries concerned will respect China's judicial sovereignty and don't exploit so-called cases to meddle in China's internal affairs."
The rift worsened late Monday, when video emerged on YouTube of a person who appears to be Dr. Büchler telling Mr. Liu: "I don't think we can do better than you in Germany maybe." Chinese media seized on this to suggest the Nobel laureate is being well-treated in China. The Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, in its English edition, said critics are trying "to take advantage of Liu's critical illness and hype up that 'China is inhuman.'"
The German embassy in Beijing, in turn, lashed out at China for releasing the video. "These recordings were made against the expressed wishes of the German side," the embassy said in a statement. "This behaviour undermines trust in the authorities dealing with Mr. Liu's case."
Human-rights advocates said it was difficult to have faith in China's judgment on Mr. Liu.
Saying he is in critical condition "might just be a pretext to try, again, to sidestep the question of letting him leave," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
"No one trusts China at this point to make decisions about him on medical grounds – the authorities from President Xi [Jinping] on down continue to make it a political issue."
Dissident Hu Jia, a friend of Mr. Liu, pointed out that the foreign doctors specifically pointed to radiotherapy as a potential treatment option.
The Chinese hospital directly ruled that out.
"Today's report equals to pushback against what the two foreign experts said yesterday," Mr. Hu said.
Mr. Liu "is indeed sliding toward death, step by step. The difference is whether it goes slowly or gets worse quickly."
Mr. Hu also suspects it is a delay tactic to keep one of China's most prominent dissident voices mute.
He suspects Communist Party leadership will only allow Mr. Liu to leave the country if he falls into a coma, making him "a thinker who is unable to speak a word abroad and die in silence – which is very helpful for the Communist Party. It can minimize his influence abroad."