(New York, NY) – PEN America condemns the Chinese government’s decision to formally arrest writer and civil rights advocate Xu Zhiyong under charges of “inciting subversion,” a naked attempt to harshly punish Xu for his forthright criticism of Chinese political leaders. Xu Zhiyong was recently announced as the recipient of PEN America’s 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Xu, a civil rights activist, lawyer, and essayist, was detained on February 15, days after publishing an online essay criticizing President Xi Jinping’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and other matters and encouraging him to resign. Xu is currently being held incommunicado, in a form of state custody known as “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL). According to news reports and PEN America contacts, on June 20, police reportedly notified Xu’s family that he was being formally arrested under the charge of “inciting subversion against state power,” a charge that carries up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

“Xu Zhiyong is under arrest for criticizing the government, plain and simple,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “By proceeding with these meritless charges of ‘subversion,’ the government is using the law as a tool to legitimize its suppression of dissidents. But criticisms are not crimes, no matter how much Beijing insists otherwise.”

Noting that the criminal conviction rate in China commonly exceeds 99 percent, Nossel continued, “we have zero confidence that Xu will receive a fair trial. We insist that the government drop these absurd and abusive criminal charges against him, and acknowledge his right to express his ideas and opinions without fear of a jail cell.”

On June 4, PEN America announced that Xu would be the recipient of this year’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. This award, given annually, recognizes an imprisoned writer targeted for the exercise of free expression. Of the 47 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 41 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.


CONTACT: Gina Chung, Communications Manager, gchung@pen.org