New York City, April 22, 2011—PEN American Center today condemned the Chinese government’s refusal to allow celebrated author Liao Yiwu to attend the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, which opens Monday in New York. Liao, whose works depicting the lives of men and women on the margins of Chinese society are banned in China but internationally acclaimed, was to have appeared in the Festival’s opening “Written on Water” reading Monday evening and a major “China in Two Acts” event on Thursday.

Festival Chairman Salman Rushdie denounced the travel ban as “a blatant violation of China’s obligations to guarantee freedom of movement and expression” and “an extremely unfortunate statement on the part of Chinese authorities about its willingness to engage in free and open cultural exchange.”

“We are extremely disappointed that we are not able to welcome Liao to New York,” Rushdie said. “One of China’s most censored writers, Liao’s groundbreaking writing has for years been off limits to his fellow citizens; now his government seeks to extend the long arm of censorship overseas. I think I speak not only for PEN and Liao’s enthusiastic readers in the United States but also for the writers from every continent gathering here next week when I say that we emphatically protest this travel ban, which does nothing to advance China’s image in the eyes of the world.”

Liao, a board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) and author of the groundbreaking work The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up, was originally told by local authorities in his home city of Chengdu that he would be able to secure an exit visa to attend the PEN World Voices Festival, which opens Monday, and the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May. However, just days before he was due to travel, authorities re-contacted Liao and informed him that he is once again being barred from traveling outside of China. PEN was informed that Liao was also asked to sign a document agreeing that he would no longer seek to publish his “illegal” works overseas. Liao’s new book, God is Red, is due to be published in the United States by Harper One in August, and concerns are mounting that he may face arrest when the book appears.

Liao had applied for exit visas to attend literary festivals around the world 14 times in the past three years, but authorities denied him each time, even forcibly removing him from a plane in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, last March, and putting him under house arrest. He was, however, finally permitted an exit visa last September to attend the Berlin Literature Festival and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Salman Rushdie, Chair of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, extended an invitation to Liao last September, and he accepted, securing a visa from the U.S. Embassy.

PEN American Center wrote to Chinese authorities to appeal the travel ban, arguing that allowing Liao to appear in the U.S. “will send a strong message to the world about China’s interest in international literary and cultural exchange” and increase “respect and enthusiasm for China’s expanding literary achievements. PEN President Kwame Anthony Appiah requested a meeting with representatives of the Chinese Mission to the U.N. to discuss Liao’s situation, but no meeting was granted.

“Our central mission is to keep open literature’s global conversation and so we are bound to be downcast when the government of China tries—as it has tried again and again in recent years—to silence China’s voice in that conversation,” said Appiah. “In doing so, they deny the rights of Chinese citizens to speak and to listen, and they deny all of us outside China the necessary dialogue with one of the world’s great literary civilizations. Whenever they change their minds—as we continue to hope they will—they will find us ready to hear what China’s writers have to say. And, ready, too, to share our ideas with them.”

Chinese writers and dissidents are currently facing the worst crackdown on freedom of expression in years with at least 49 writers in prison, detained, or put under house arrest—a number even higher than what PEN tracked during the 2008 Olympic year. The Independent Chinese PEN Center has been a particular target, with seven members in prison, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and Ye Du, ICPC’s webmaster and network coordinator, who is being held under “residential surveillance” at an undisclosed location.

An empty chair will mark Liao’s absence at Monday evening’s “Written on Water” reading at the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, which features Rushdie, Deborah Eisenberg, Malcolm Gladwell, Vladimir Sorokin, Wallace Shawn, among others; at “China in Two Acts” on Thursday evening at The Great Hall of Cooper Union; and at the closing “Arther Miller Freedom to Write Lecture” on Sunday, May 1, featuring Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.

PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center, which works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled, has been working to end China’s imprisonment, harassment, and surveillance of writers and journalists and curtail Internet censorship and other restrictions on the freedom to write in that country.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105, (646) 359-0594 (cell)
Sarah Hoffman, (212) 334-1660 ext. 111, (201) 874-9849 (cell)