This report arises out of five years of research and targeted advocacy on behalf of writers and journalists who have been censored or persecuted for their work in the People’s Republic of China. It presents PEN International’s findings, compiled by our international researchers and by our colleagues on the ground in China, on the ongoing threats to individual writers and journalists in the country and our assessment of the climate for freedom of expression in the world’s most populous state. These findings and assessments are echoed and amplified throughout the report in ten essays contributed by leading writers from China.

As the Introduction of this report makes clear, PEN International’s concern about the treatment of individual writers in China is connected in no small part to the experiences of PEN members in China, including poet and critic Liu Xiaobo, a founding member and past president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year prison sentence for seven phrases that allegedly amount to “incitement to subversion of state power.” His freedom, and the freedom of his wife, Liu Xia, who has been held in extralegal, incommunicado house arrest in her apartment in Beijing since Liu’s Nobel Prize selection was announced, remains one of PEN International’s highest organisational priorities.

As Chapter One of this report, “Pressure From Above,” makes clear, Liu Xiaobo’s case is far from an anomaly. PEN International has been tracking the number of writers, journalists, and bloggers who are in custody in China for their work since 2008, the year that Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics. To secure those Games, Chinese leaders pledged to safeguard and expand essential rights including freedom of expression. The report finds, however, that the number of writers in prison actually increased that year, and there have been three successive waves of crackdowns on dissident voices since then. There have also been targeted, protracted, and far more widespread crackdowns in Tibetan regions, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, which have severely curtailed those peoples’ right to express themselves freely.

But this practice of silencing key dissident voices in order to discourage more widespread dissent—“killing the chicken to scare the monkeys,” according to a Chinese proverb—is less effective than ever. Chapter Two, “Pressure From Below,” documents the most important phenomenon for freedom of expression in today’s China, the increasingly assertive voices of Chinese citizens who are finding new ways and using new tools to share their experiences and opinions, including highly critical social and political views. Their creativity, in communications over digital media in particular, has been met with an expanding “stability maintenance” apparatus that includes both widespread censorship of the Internet and wholesale surveillance of its users. Despite proliferating controls, the Chinese people have clearly gained ground in their capacity and their sense of freedom to express critical thoughts and ideas, and appear determined to hold and expand this ground.

The same is true in the realm of literature, the subject of the third and final chapter of this report, “The Literary Community.” As the career and work of 2012 Nobel Literature Laureate Mo Yan demonstrate, Chinese authors have expanded the boundaries of discourse as well—though many, like Mo Yan himself, walk a careful line to ensure they remain in official favour. Writers who do try to create and disseminate their work outside the party’s patronage system can now turn to private sector publishers, and those writers and publishers are finding avid audiences of readers. But direct and indirect censorship of literature persists, and creative freedom remains circumscribed by old orthodoxies and new, powerful interests. Even some of China’s most acclaimed writers have works that they have not been able to publish on the mainlaind.

In literature as in traditional and new media, new energies toward creation exist side by side with, and are often threatened or obscured by, old habits of suppression. That suppression violates fundamental human rights precepts including the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under international law and China’s own constitution. It comes at an enormous human cost for the individual writers, journalists, and bloggers whose rights are being abridged, and for the health and vitality of China’s traditional and new media and for its literatures.

The PEN Report: Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China concludes with a series of recommendations to the Chinese government to ensure that it restores and protects the rights of all writers, journalists, and bloggers to exercise their right to freedom of expression; respects the right of China’s citizens to a free and independent press; guarantees the right of writers and publishers to publish without fear of government interference or reprisals; upholds the right of all citizens, including members of ethnic minorities living in so-called “sensitive regions” to exercise their right to freedom of expression; and participates more fully and openly in the international exchange of literature and ideas. It includes additional recommendations to other governments to enlist their support in securing greater freedom of expression in China.

PEN offers these recommendations in line with the PEN International Charter, which embodies our commitment to freedom of expression and an open international exchange of literature and ideas; with PEN’s Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights, which lays out our commitment to preserving indigenous languages; and with PEN’s Declaration on Digital Freedom, which guides our organisational advocacy to protect and expand freedom of expression in the digital age. These documents are presented in an Appendix to this report. Also in the appendices are a summary of laws that are currently abridging or impeding freedom of expression in China; and additional information about cases summarized in this report.

For PEN International, an organisation dedicated to defending writers and protecting the right of all to freedom of expression, what is happening in China, with one-fifth of the world’s population and now over half a billion Internet users, is of paramount interest and urgent concern—not least because four Independent Chinese PEN Centre members remain in prison and many more writers, journalists, and bloggers are facing constant harassment and surveillance. PEN offers this report in the interest of illuminating both the disturbing and persistent violations of the right to freedom of expression and the inspiring efforts by so many writers and citizens to reclaim and exercise this right. At its heart is a simple plea to the government of the People’s Republic of China: respect and protect the right of our colleagues, and all China’s citizens, to exercise this most fundamental right.