PEN Appeals to Xi Jinping for Release of Imprisoned Chinese
For them, pens and laptops are the tools of their trade and their megaphones to the world. Among their ranks are some of the best-known chroniclers of American society and creators of fantasy worlds. Now, these 44 writers and public intellectuals have issued a strongly worded open letter to President Xi Jinping of China that calls on him to free all Chinese writers, scholars and intellectuals who have been imprisoned for their political views.
The signers of the letter tell Mr. Xi that they “write to express our deepest concern about the deteriorating state of free expression in China.”
Many people, including Chinese readers, will recognize some of the names. They include the writers Neil Gaiman, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Orlean, Ian McEwan, Paul Auster and Art Spiegelman. Chinese-born novelists are present, too — Ha Jin and Xiaolu Guo. There are also scholars of China and Tibet who have been outspoken in their defense of free speech, among them the professors Andrew Nathan and Elliot Sperling, both of whom have been banned from entering China by the government.
The letter says that the four incarcerated Chinese mentioned above and “countless others highlight the harsh punishments faced by writers who voice views that the government finds objectionable. The imprisonment of writers and journalists damages China’s image abroad and undercuts its ambition to be a strong and respected partner on the world stage.”
In emailed comments, Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center, which is based in New York, wrote: “During a visit to the U.S. that is expected to be a star turn for Xi Jinping on the world stage with 21-gun salutes, toasts and photo ops, audiences need to be reminded to see this government for what it is — intolerant of dissent and cruel toward those who challenge the enforced ideology.”
“While there was anticipation early on that Xi Jinping might be a reformer who would nudge China forward toward a more modern and open system, those hopes have been dashed with writers and journalists in China reporting that speaking your mind is more dangerous under Xi than at any point in recent memory,” she added. “While the world is wowed by Chinese costume exhibits and contemporary art, as a creative community we see a dark side watching our colleagues intimidated, silenced and jailed for saying and writing what they think.”
Following is the text of the letter, with the names of the signatories:
September 18, 2015
His Excellency Mr. Xi Jinping
President of the People’s Republic of China
The People’s Republic of China
As you undertake your first state visit to the United States, we the undersigned, as journalists, writers, and free expression advocates affiliated with PEN American Center, a leading cultural organization, write to express our deepest concern about the deteriorating state of free expression in China.
We are particularly concerned about the plight of our colleagues, many of whom face severe consequences for exercising their right to express their opinions and pursue their creativity. We have documented cases of at least 47 writers and journalists currently imprisoned in China. The average sentence for a writer is eight years in prison, and some sentences are even harsher. Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar and blogger, was sentenced on September 23, 2014 to life in prison for voicing his views online about the treatment of Uighurs.
Earlier this year, Gao Yu, an investigative journalist, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Ms. Gao, 71 years old, remains in ill health in prison, and is not receiving the medical care she needs. We urge China to adhere to international covenants to which it is a signatory that require state authorities to refrain from denying or limiting equal access to healthcare for all persons, including prisoners and detainees.
As you know, former Independent Chinese PEN Center president Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic, writer, professor, and human rights activist, was sentenced to an 11-year prison term and two years’ deprivation of political rights on December 25, 2009 for calling for political reforms. His wife, Liu Xia, who is a painter, poet, and photographer, has been under house arrest for nearly five years even though she has not been accused of a crime; your government has not even acknowledged her detention.
These four cases and countless others highlight the harsh punishments faced by writers who voice views that the government finds objectionable. The imprisonment of writers and journalists damages China’s image abroad and undercuts its ambition to be a strong and respected partner on the world stage. So too does broad official censorship of literature, the news media, and the internet and telecommunications technologies, as it prevents Chinese citizens from accessing accurate news and information that is in the public interest, and stifles the creativity and diversity of viewpoints that are essential to building a dynamic and competitive economy and culture.
To that end, Mr. President, we urge you to release the Chinese writers and journalists who are languishing in jail for the crime of expressing their opinions, and to take immediate steps to defend and protect the rights of all Chinese citizens to communicate and access information freely.
Follow Edward Wong on Twitter @comradewong.