(New York, NY) — Today a group of distinguished writers from around the world issued an open letter to Chinese president Xi Jinping demanding that he release dissident writer and activist Xu Zhiyong, PEN America’s 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award winner. Xu is currently being held and facing charges of “inciting subversion of state power” in connection with his essays and peaceful civil rights advocacy; he was detained earlier this year after penning an essay critical of Xi’s governance, including his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The letter, signed by Pulitzer Prize winners, essayists, novelists, historians, screenwriters, and advocates, demands Xu’s immediate release and calls on the Chinese government to ensure his freedom to write and speak freely.

“Your Excellency, writing an essay is no crime. Nor is criticism of political leaders, nor peaceful advocacy for constitutional reform,” the letter reads. “These are certainly not valid reasons to silence Xu, to tear him away from his family and the outside world, to force him into incommunicado detention, or to threaten him with criminal charges and years-long imprisonment. Whether in China, the United States, or anywhere else in the world, the right of individuals to scrutinize the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and to hold officials accountable for their actions is paramount in ensuring that this historic crisis yields insights that allow us to be better prepared for the next outbreak”

Among the signatories on today’s letter: incoming and outgoing PEN America presidents Ayad Akhtar and Jennifer Egan, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Ron Chernow, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, Adam Gopnick, Khaled Hosseini, James Hannaham, Hua Ze, Ma Jian, former PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient Ahmed Naji, Gregory Pardlo, Elif Shafak, Fatima Shaik, David Simon, Gary Shteyngart, Richard Stengel, Tom Stoppard, David Ulin, Tobias Wolff, Helen Zia, and many others.

Earlier this year, PEN America announced that it would bestow its annual PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on Xu at its annual gala on December 8. Xu, an essayist and established organizer and lawyer, has been an integral member of China’s most important civil rights movements over the last 20 years. Taken into state custody in a “coronavirus prevention check,” Xu’s detention in February represents a targeted attack on writers and those who critique President Xi or question the social and political status quo. Xu is facing charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” a provision that carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

“Our letter is a clear reminder that writers around the world intend to speak out on behalf of one another,” said Jennifer Egan, PEN America board president. “Leaders like Xi Jinping have exploited the global pandemic crisis to extend their crackdown on free expression and the freedom to write. We’re here to remind them that writers around the world are paying vigilant attention, and will do everything in our power to ensure all of us have the right to speak out.”

The letter comes as the PEN network of more than 100 centers globally marked the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on November 15, this year highlighting five writers from around the world who have been subjugated to imprisonment, brutal treatment, and other forms of persecution for their work. China ranks the worst jailer of writers and public intellectuals worldwide, with 73 behind bars in 2019, as outlined in PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index.