A Nobel Peace Prize winner arrested for protesting communism and human rights abuses died in Chinese government custody, to the dismay of U.S. leaders.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lamented the death of Liu Xiaobo, a 2010 Nobel laureate whose imprisonment after co-authoring an anti-communist manifesto drew international condemnation. His plight developed into a potential flashpoint between China and the United States, where American leaders sought to amplify his message and secure his release.

"Mr. Liu dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty," Tillerson said Thursday. "In his fight for freedom, equality, and constitutional rule in China, Liu Xiaobo embodied the human spirit that the Nobel Prize rewards. In his death, he has only reaffirmed the Nobel Committee's selection."

Chinese leaders refused to release Xiaobo or allow him to collect the prize, an event that would have driven more attention to his cause. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other lawmakers sought to rename the street outside the Chinese embassy to the United States after Xiaobo, as a "public shaming" tactic to induce his release.

"Although the physical cause of his death was cancer, Dr. Liu's primary battle was one of the soul," Cruz said Thursday. "From ‘re-education through labor' and deprivation of property to unjust imprisonment and physical abuse, Dr. Liu bore the brunt of the Communist Party's wrath for daring to challenge their immoral system of political oppression in his coauthoring of ‘Charter 08,' a manifesto of Chinese freedom that reverberates today more than ever."

Cruz and Tillerson both noted that the activist's widow, Liu Xia, remains in custody. "I was pleased to hear today from Liu Xiaobo's counsel that the Norwegian Nobel Institute has now confirmed it has found a legal way for Liu Xia to be able to inherit the $1.5 million monetary award for the Nobel Peace Prize that Liu Xiaobo was never able to collect," Cruz said. "[I]f there is an issue that should unite us all, it is that the wife a Nobel Peace laureate speaking out for peace and democracy should not be kept hostage in Communist China."