Chinese performance artist and human rights activist Chen Yunfei was charged in 2015 with “incitement to subvert state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after visiting the grave of Tiananmen Massacre victim Wu Guofeng. After two years of detention without trial, Chen was sentenced on March 31, 2017, to four years in prison. Chinese authorities have tortured Chen twice while in custody and have kept him in shackles for prolonged periods of time.


Chen Yunfei is a performance artist who works at the intersection of human rights activism and art. His art is overtly political, promoting the Chinese pro-democracy movement and addressing human rights abuses in China and the legacy of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Case Updates

March 2017: Chen’s one-day trial finally occurred on March 31, 2017, after which he was sentenced to a four-year prison term. While in detention, Chen has suffered multiple human rights violations, including being forced to wear shackles for extended periods of time and torture. Chen’s attorney, Sui Muqing, has been detained illegally twice after visiting his client.

March 2015: On March 25, Chen was detained after visiting Wu Guofeng’s gravesite with a group of activists and Wu’s family members in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Wu was an amateur photographer and university student who was ultimately stabbed to death with a bayonet by a Chinese soldier during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In late April of that year, police formally charged Chen with “incitement to subvert state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—charges typically brought against dissidents. Chen was held in detention without trial for over two years.

Freedom of Expression in China

In recent years, addressing the dire situation for free expression in China has been one of PEN America’s signature campaigns. With the world’s largest population, and with increased economic and political heft, China’s extensive censorship apparatus limits speech both within and outside its borders. Although new digital platforms have expanded the means of expression, they have also provided more opportunities for repression: in China, even a simple Tweet can land its author in jail. Since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013, he has overseen an extensive crackdown on free speech, implementing additional laws and censorship controls on the Internet, media, and publishers. In addition, individual Chinese writers, journalists, and creative artists have been censored, harassed, imprisoned, and even disappeared after they speak out about sensitive topics such as the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, corruption, and the lack of democratic reform. Several dozen are currently behind bars because of their writings or creative expression. Read more about freedom of expression in China here.

in their words

Chen’s Labor Camp”: A performance commenting on both the Chinese penal farms and Chen’s oppression by the police in which Chen played the role of “Chen Prisoner Yunfei,” on a recreated labor camp.

Another work was a funeral for his passport and permit for traveling to Hong Kong and Macao following the restriction of Chen’s travel due to his outspoken performance art.


July featured case: Chen Yunfei