(New York, NY) – The Chinese government’s criticism and apparent censorship of celebrated Peruvian author and former president of PEN International Mario Vargas Llosa, in apparent retaliation for the writer’s recent editorial on the coronavirus, is an unwarranted attempt to influence the conversation around the pandemic by retaliating against critics, PEN America said today.

On Saturday, Vargas Llosa wrote a column for Spain’s newspaper El País, in which the author shared his reflections on the coronavirus. Among other points, Vargas Llosa noted that the virus had originated in China, and went on to note that China had censored at least one of the doctors who had originally detected the virus. Vargas Llosa, who has previously received the Nobel Prize for Literature, concluded that China’s censorship meant that “the presence of the plague was recognized only when the virus was already spreading… true progress is always crippled when it is not accompanied by freedom.”

In response, China’s embassy to Peru released a statement accusing the author of “a series of absurd and baseless criticisms of China,” and accused the author of “discriminatory and defamatory statements” as a result of his identifying the virus as originating from China. El País has since reported that, in the aftermath of Vargas Llosa’s column, the author’s books have “mysteriously disappeared” from major Chinese e-book platforms. 

Various observers—including PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel—have concluded that the Chinese government’s efforts to tightly control the narrative around the virus has exacerbated the spread of the virus. In a column for Foreign Policy written earlier this month, Nossel wrote, “China and Iran stand out for muzzling doctors who tried to warn about the coronavirus, downplaying the number of cases and deaths as the epidemic progressed, and inflating the success of their containment efforts. The predictable result was that the virus spread more quickly and widely than if these governments had been forthright from the start.”

“The Chinese government’s attacks on Mario Vargas Llosa should be seen for what they are: an attempt to dismiss valid criticism of their handling of the coronavirus by smearing the critic as defamatory,” said Nossel today.  “But now is a moment for truth telling, and that includes the fact that China’s efforts to censor critics and whistleblowers—including their effort to silence whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who later died from the virus—played a role in exacerbating the danger that the coronavirus has posed both to Chinese citizens and to the world at large. Chinese officials should recognize the public health consequences of their relentless censorship efforts, and stop attempting to smear or silence those who object to their narrative around the virus.”

COVID-19 is widely understood to have originated in Wuhan, China, and the first reported cases of the outbreak occurred there. Last week, however, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweeted—without evidence—that “it might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” raising concerns that the Chinese government may be seeking to misleadingly depict the virus as originating outside China, for political gain.

“We should all be vigilant against anti-Chinese bias in speaking about and reporting on COVID-19, but that is not what  happened in this case,” said PEN America’s Nossel. “Merely noting that the coronavirus originated in China is neither controversial or defamatory. The Chinese government is attempting to smear Vargas Llosa with this accusation in order to delegitimize his valid political criticism, in yet another example of the government’s many attempts to silence critics beyond its borders. And removing his books from online booksellers is a deplorable form of retaliatory censorship. Vargas Llosa has ever right to speak his mind, and the Chinese people have every right to read his words. Now more than ever we must guard against such attempts to silence those who speak out, wherever they may be.”

Last month, PEN America released a statement on the case of detained citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, indicating its concern that authorities had placed the reporter in “quarantine” as a pretext to silence his independent reporting. PEN America’s previous advocacy on the issue of censorship within China includes its 2018 report Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China, in which it noted 80 different cases of social media commentators who had been targeted for their free expression, including on health and public safety issues.

###

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892