(New York, NY) — Chinese officials have reportedly upgraded the charges against detained Chinese writer and human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong to “subversion of state power,” a more serious charge than the previous charge of “inciting subversion.” PEN America today said the newly-enhanced charges reflect an intensifying effort by China’s government to stifle free expression and criticism.

Honored as PEN America’s 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write awardee in a presentation at the organization’s December 2020 Literary Gala—featuring former President Barack Obama, among other honorees—Xu has been held in incommunicado detention since February 2020 after writing an essay critical of China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. A long-time and highly respected independent voice critical of China’s government, Xu was charged last year with “inciting subversion of state power,” a count that carries a maximum of 15 years imprisonment. Legal sources have recently shared that Xu is now expected to stand trial on the more serious charge of “subversion,” which can carry a sentence of life imprisonment.

“Chinese officials are choosing this moment to double down on repression, using Xu to signify their imperviousness to global pressure to comply with international norms of free expression,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “Chinese leaders fear Xu and other writers and advocates who dare defy the state’s official narrative on its handling of COVID-19 and call out Beijing’s deteriorating human rights record. Xu should be released immediately, and we call on the newly-inaugurated Biden administration to send a strong signal prioritizing his freedom and that of other imperiled dissidents as they engage with China.”

Xu, a longtime civil rights leader, was detained February 15, 2020 for penning an essay criticizing the leadership of China’s president Xi Jinping and his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and calling on Xi to resign. Last spring, PEN America labeled China as the top jailer of writers worldwide based on a global census published in the PEN America 2019 Freedom to Write Index. In December, Xu received PEN America’s Freedom to Write Award, granted each year to an imprisoned writer or public intellectual.

“For nearly a year, we haven’t heard from Xu and we haven’t seen him, and yet we’re inspired by his writing and the work he’s done,” said Li Qiaochu, a leading women’s rights activist in China and Xu’s colleague and fiancé. “And we know that even behind the walls of prison, he continues to believe in the potential for change in China.” 

Chinese officials have also reportedly elevated charges against activist Ding Jiaxi. Both men have been held in the same detention center in east China’s Shandong province.