Outspoken Chinese author and poet Liao Yiwu has been denied permission to leave China to attend the Sydney Writers’ festival, the event has announced.

One of China’s most censored writers, Liao spent four years in jail after condemning the Tiananmen Square killings in his 1989 poem, Massacre. Last month he was barred from attending the PEN World Voices festival in New York, a move which festival chair Salman Rushdie called “a blatant violation of China’s obligations to guarantee freedom of movement and expression”. He has now been prevented from attending the Australian event later this month.

Liao was due to talk about his new book, The Corpse Walker, in Sydney, and to read from his poetry. The Corpse Walker, 11 years in the writing, records the lives of 27 “outsiders from China’s forgotten classes”, from a grave robber to a leper, and a professional mourner, paid to wail at funerals.

The festival’s artistic director Chip Rolley said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision to ban Liao from travelling. “Our primary concern is for Liao Yiwu who has been denied the fundamental right to express his views freely,” said Rolley in a statement. “We are astonished by the Chinese government’s additional demand that he not publish his works internationally.”

Liao’s works are banned in China but published in English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish. PEN said concerns are mounting that the author may face arrest when his new book God is Red, about the history of Christianity in China, appears in August.

The writers’ organisation said that Liao has applied for exit visas to attend international literary festivals 14 times in the last three years, but has been denied each time, with authorities removing him forcibly from a plane in Chengdu last March. “Words alone cannot express my outrage,” Liao wrote in an email to PEN at the time. “I’m a writer and never considered myself a political dissident. But Liu Xiaobo was right when he said, ‘To gain and preserve your freedom and dignity, there is no other way except to fight.'”

He was permitted to attend the Berlin literature festival and the Frankfurt book fair last September, but the ban was back in place for April’s PEN event in New York, where an empty chair marked the author’s absence.

The Sydney event would have seen Liao appearing on a panel about China on 21 May with defence analyst Hugh White, author and Sinologist Linda Jaivin, and British philosopher AC Grayling.

Grayling this morning expressed his profound regret that Liao would not be attending, both because of “the loss to the festival in not having a major contemporary poet there”, and also because it was “dismaying further proof that China is still a serious human rights violator, which should cause the rest of the world great concern”.

“The litany of [China’s] wrongs could fill pages, and the denial of a basic human right to Liao Yiwu is merely one more symptom of a rotten despotism which is, at the same time, too insecure to allow a poet to travel abroad,” said Grayling. “The rest of the world ought to take a long hard look at China and ask some tough questions about it. Blinded by the lure of profit because of the size of the potential market there, the rest of the world chooses to be pusillanimous and – it has to be said – very dim-witted about China, failing to challenge what will soon be an armed and ambitious giant with the mentality, when it comes to questions of civilised values and human rights, of a three-year-old.”

The 21 May event will proceed in Liao’s absence, the festival said. “The theme of the 2011 Sydney Writers’ festival seeks to underscore the power of the writer to name, create and shape our world,” said Rolley. “There is perhaps no greater, nor more disappointing, testament to that power than the actions of the Chinese government to silence Liao Yiwu and others.”

PEN said that there are currently “at least” 49 writers in prison, detained or under house arrest in China, including Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Artist Ai Weiwei was also detained by police in Beijing last month. The writers’ body said the situation was “the worst crackdown on freedom of expression in years”.