July Featured Case: Chen Yunfei
Tell U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to demand the release of Chinese artist and activist Chen Yunfei »
On March 31, 2017, after two years in detention and a one-day trial, Chinese human rights activist Chen Yunfei was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of “incitement to subvert state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for his attempt to visit and honor the grave site of Wu Guofeng, a victim of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Chen Yunfei is a performance artist who works at the intersection of human rights activism and art. His art is overtly political, intending to promote the Chinese pro-democracy movement. In one work, Chen created a farm at his residence called the “Chen Work Farm” and positioned himself as “Chen Prisoner Yunfei.” This work commented both on Chinese penal farms and Chen’s oppression by the police. Another work was a funeral for his passport and permit for traveling to Hong Kong and Macao following the restriction of his travel due to his outspoken performance art. A great deal of his work has focused on human rights abuses in China, particularly the legacy of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
While in pre-trial detention, as well as after sentencing, Chen suffered torture and inhumane treatment. Both after having sarcastically said, “Our leaders are great!” and refusing to extend the standard greeting to prison guards, Chen’s hands and feet were shackled for extended periods of time. When one of his attorneys, Sui Muqing, attempted to take photos of his client’s injuries, the lawyer was detained for 12 hours, and guards took documents and photos regarding Chen’s case from Sui. Sui was also detained on another occasion while visiting his client.
Chen’s activist spirit was evident during his one-day trial, at which he continued to fight against the infringement on his freedom of expression. Wearing pajamas, a satirical reference to President Xi Jinping’s slogan “the Chinese dream,” Chen said: “I’ve been tormented for two years now, to the point that I’ve started to feel like the Monkey King (孙悟空) trapped in the searing flames of Lao Zi’s crucible—exceedingly comfortable. The persecution, the beatings, the shackling, have all turned into mathematical problems for me to solve. The harder they get, the more interesting it is, the more meaningful it feels to unravel them.”
Chen and his lawyers also expressed “disappointment” with the four-year sentence, stating that they had hoped for a harsher sentence so that the government would take fewer political prisoners. Chen’s lawyer Sui Muqing said, “His aim is to become China’s last political prisoner. He would rather keep on serving other people’s jail time for them.”
On the day of Chen’s trial, two other human rights defenders, Su Changlan and Chen Qitang, were also tried and found guilty of inciting subversion of state power. Su and Chen had both supported pro-democracy protests in China.
In a blog post for the Independent Chinese PEN Center, author Liao Yiwu, a friend of Chen Yunfei’s, noted that Chen’s detention is part of a widespread pattern of censorship by the Communist Party. Mr. Liao wrote: “One after another, so many kind-hearted, conscientious, courageous, and idealistic individuals— well-known names such Li Bifeng, Liu Xianbin, Chen Wei, Chen Xi, Xu Zhiyong, Pu Zhiqiang, Guo Yushan, Gao Yu, and many others, nearly one hundred in all—have been thrown into despot’s cage at the bidding of ‘Xi Dada.’” Liu Xiaobo, a renowned literary critic, writer, political activist, and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been in prison since 2008 because of his pro-democracy writings. Last month, he was given medical parole to be treated for late-stage liver cancer, amidst continued international urging for his unconditional release.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, there has been a sweeping crackdown on activists, artists, and human rights lawyers. Despite the censorship and persecution, many artists, activists, and lawyers, like Chen Yunfei, refuse to submit to the regime. PEN America condemns the infringement on Chen Yunfei’s free expression, as freedom of artistic expression is integral to the exchange of ideas, social and political engagement, and cross-cultural understanding. Join PEN America and call for Chen Yunfei’s immediate release.