(New York, NY) — On the one-year anniversary of Chinese dissident writer Xu Zhiyong’s detention, PEN America reiterates its call for his immediate, unconditional release. PEN America awarded Xu its 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given yearly to a detained writer or public intellectual.

“Over the past year, Xu Zhiyong has been largely isolated from the outside world. Authorities have escalated the charges against him and subjected him to horrific abuse. All this, because Xu has refused to be silent about his dream of constitutional reform in China,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America. “Meanwhile, his partner Li Qiaochu has been repeatedly targeted and is now detained, simply for refusing to accept this injustice in silence. At every turn, the government has chosen to double-down on repression, rather than to permit Xu and Li the basic human right to express themselves freely. We call upon the Chinese government to do the right thing: to drop these politically-motivated and unjust charges against Xu, to immediately release him and Li from detention, and to allow them to express themselves without fear that their government will treat their words as crimes.”

Xu is a Chinese writer, legal scholar, and civil rights activist who has been an integral member of China’s most important civil rights movements over the last 20 years. On February 15, 2020, Xu was arrested at his lawyer’s home. At the time, Xu had been in hiding, after a wave of arrests had targeted his fellow participants at a December meeting of activists. During his time in hiding, Xu wrote “Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go,” criticizing Xi Jinping’s leadership including his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Xu originally faced charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” a common charge used against dissident writers and activists. In late January of this year, authorities reportedly upgraded the charge to “subversion of state power,” a more serious offense, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. 

Xu has spent almost the entirety of the past year in incommunicado detention, and was not allowed to meet with his lawyer until January 21 of this year. Xu reportedly told his lawyer he has been subjected to abusive conditions, including being deprived of sleep, spending ten hours per day strapped to an interrogation chair, and being held in a detention cell that reaches below-freezing temperatures. 

Authorities have also repeatedly targeted Xu’s assistant and fiancee, Li Qiaochu, who is known as a labor and women’s rights activist. In February 2020, shortly after Xu was detained, Li was placed into four months of incommunicado detention, an experience which she has described as “hell.” Despite threats against her, Li has continued to advocate for Xu’s cause, including by accepting the Freedom to Write Award on his behalf at PEN America’s 2020 Literary Gala. On February 6, Li was detained and brought to Linyi Detention Center, where she is currently being held.