UPDATE: On July 12, Xu Zhangrun was reportedly released from detention. PEN America’s Karin Deutsch Karlekar said the following:

“PEN America is relieved to hear that Xu Zhangrun has been released from detention—good news in such cases is all too rare. While the exact terms of his release remain unclear, we call on Chinese government authorities to ensure he is unconditionally free and able to resume his work.”


(New York, NY) — Chinese police detained scholar Xu Zhangrun this week on trumped-up accusations. PEN America today said his detention demonstrates the increasingly limitless power of President Xi Jinping to punish his critics and silence any whispers of dissent.

According to friends of Xu, at least 20 people arrived early Monday to arrest Xu and seize his personal belongings, taking his computer and papers with them. Though formal charges against Xu remain unclear, reports claim that the police have accused Xu of soliciting prostitutes in the city of Chengdu, accusations that PEN America believes are pre-textual.

“With these preposterous accusations, President Xi and the Chinese authorities have once again made clear that the freedom to write hinges on blind devotion to Xi’s mandate and policies,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression at risk programs at PEN America. “Though not unexpected, Xu Zhangrun’s detention continues to show that any person who utters criticism—in even the most extreme and life-threatening circumstances of a global pandemic—will face punitive consequences for such speech. Xu’s independent commentary on Beijing’s policies and on Xi’s misuse of authority is a public good. Individual writers should not have to weigh on one hand their freedom to speak truth to power, and on the other hand the threat of a prison sentence. We call for Xu Zhangrun’s release from detention, for these retaliatory charges against him to be dropped, and for officials to allow him to write freely.”

Authorities have targeted Xu for his public commentary of President Xi since at least 2019. Administrators at Tsinghua University barred him from teaching, writing, and speaking at the prestigious university after he wrote in 2018 against the removal of presidential term limits and warned of the cult-like admiration for Xi. And for the last four months, Xu has lived under house arrest, a punishment stemming from his February essay “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” in which he discussed Beijing’s repressive response to COVID-19.

Cases such as those against Xu are brought regularly by Chinese authorities against writers, scholars, and others who draw attention to contentious political issues. In February 2020, legal scholar and essayist Xu Zhiyong (no relation) was detained and taken to a “residential surveillance in a designated location” after penning an essay titled, “Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go,” citing similar concerns of President Xi’s authority and his mismanagement of the novel coronavirus.

In June, PEN America announced that Xu Zhiyong will be honored with the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. On June 20, Xu Zhiyong was formally charged with “inciting subversion against state power” and now faces 15 years in prison for his writing. Similarly, citizen journalist and online commentator Chen Qiushi has been detained since early February after disseminating on-the-ground videos from Wuhan, sharing with the public an unvarnished account of life with the pandemic.