An extraordinary coalition of global literary figures including the Nobel literature laureates JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Tomas Tranströmer and Mario Vargas Llosa have come together to call on China to respect its population’s right to freedom of expression, and to release those writers “unjustly imprisoned for exercising this most fundamental right”.

Over a hundred writers and artists from around the world – also including Ian McEwan, Tracey Emin, Edward Albee, Salman Rushdie, EL Doctorow and Don DeLillo – have put their names to a letter highlighting the plight of the imprisoned 2010 Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, who lives under house arrest, along with “more than 40 other writers and journalists currently jailed for their work”.

“We cannot … listen to China’s great and emerging creative voices without hearing the silence of those whose voices are forcibly restrained,” they write. “Our plea to China’s new leaders is simple. Respect and protect the right of our colleagues, and all of China’s citizens, to freedom of expression. Respect and protect the right of Chinese citizens to a free and independent press. Respect and protect the right of writers to write, publishers to publish, and artists of all disciplines to create and present their work without fear of reprisal. Release all those unjustly imprisoned for exercising this most fundamental right. Creativity is strength. Freeing China’s creative voices will enrich us all.”

Their letter comes as PEN International releases a report, five years in the making, into what the organisation calls the “perilous climate” for writers in China. It explores the situations of over 100 writers who PEN says have been “jailed, assaulted, held in extrajudicial detention, or forced into exile during governmental crackdowns”, including more than 40 writers currently in jail for their writing.

Liu, serving an 11-year prison sentence for “incitement to subversion of state power”, is one of these writers, and his release is “one of PEN’s highest organisational priorities”. But the report also looks at “crackdowns on dissident voices” in Tibetan regions, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, “which have severely curtailed those peoples’ right to express themselves freely”. It includes essays by 10 of China’s leading dissident writers, such as the poet Liao Yiwu, who was imprisoned after his 1989 poem, Massacre, condemned the Tiananmen Square killings.

“The report describes not only the tremendous bravery of our colleague Liu Xiaobo, his wife, Liu Xia, and scores of other writers and journalists in China, but also the daily acts of bravery of the millions of China’s citizens who are challenging China’s censors to make their voices heard,” said Rushdie, who is launching the report at the culmination of the PEN World Voices festival in New York on Friday 3 May. “The writers of the world stand with them in calling for freedom of expression and creative freedom in China.”

For the president of PEN International, John Ralston Saul, there is “no honour in stripping writers of their rights simply for saying what they believe, and no pride in employing tens of thousands of internet police to limit the communications of citizens”.

“China, with all its rich cultures, has everything to gain and nothing to lose through free speech,” he said. “The report we are releasing this week includes a series of recommendations that are fair and realistic. We believe these changes can, and should, be made.”