NEW YORK—As President Obama prepares to welcome Xi Jinping on his first official visit to the United States next week, PEN American Center has released an open letter to the Chinese president demanding an end to the ongoing crackdown against free expression in the world’s most populous nation.

Signed by more than 40 prominent writers, translators, artists, China scholars, and PEN Members including Paul Auster, Teju Cole, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman, and Susan Orlean, the letter outlines the cases of four of the at least 47 writers currently behind bars in China for expressing viewpoints the government disfavors.

“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,” the letter reads. It points also to broad censorship of literature, news, and online media, which “stifles the creativity and diversity of viewpoints that are essential to building a dynamic and competitive economy and culture.”

China has long engaged in official censorship to rule out any “objectionable” content, including references to controversial Chinese historical details, Chinese politics, and details about Chinese leaders. Those who dare to speak or write about these issues—especially in ways deemed threatening to the Communist Party—are regularly tried and jailed, for an average of eight years, under spurious charges ranging from subversion and separatism to defamation and espionage. The crackdown on free expression has widened in recent months as the Chinese market slows, marked by the January shutdown of dozens of websites and social media accounts for “distorting history of the Communist Party and the nation,” the conviction of ailing 71-year-old journalist Gao Yu on the anniversary the Tiananmen Square protests, and the detention in July of more than 200 human rights lawyers.

“Xi has stepped up his crackdown on dissent in recent months, trying to muffle anxieties about China’s economy and banking on the idea that there is too much at stake in terms of U.S.-China economic and security relations for human rights to interfere with his trip,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center. “With all the focus on trying to foster mutual understanding amidst Chinese muscle-flexing in Asia, in global markets, and in cyberspace, it’s essential for American leaders to remember while listening to the Party line that some of the most forward-looking and open-minded Chinese thinkers are sitting in jail and untold others are deterred from voicing challenges for fear of being threatened, detained, or sentenced to long prison terms.”

Xi’s visit kicks off Wednesday at a summit in Seattle with American tech industry leaders including Google and Facebook, which are blocked in China, orchestrated by the Chinese government and co-hosted by Microsoft. Xi will move on to Washington Friday to meet with President Obama before addressing the United National General Assembly in New York on Monday, September 28.


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,200 U.S. writers working to break down barriers to free expression worldwide. Its distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and human rights of such past members as James Baldwin, Arthur Miller, and Susan Sontag.


Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director:, +1 (646) 779-4811
Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director of Communication:, +1 (646) 779-4830