New York, Washington, Toronto, Beijing, December 10, 2007—World-renowned writers from China and North America marked International Human Rights Day today by launching 40:242 – We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression, a campaign that challenges the Chinese government to release all of the writers and journalists it is holding in prisons before the August 8, 2008 opening of the Olympic Games. Noted Chinese authors Liu Xiaobo and Zheng Yi were among those joining international counterparts including Margaret Atwood, Francine Prose, and Salman Rushdie in issuing the challenge on behalf of PEN, the worldwide association of writers.  

In August 2007, the Chinese government launched a major publicity offensive for the Olympics under the slogan “We Are Ready.” The writers’ campaign, a PEN initiative led by the Independent Chinese PEN Center and PEN centers in the US and Canada, mocks that public relations effort by reminding the world that China continues to deny its citizens the fundamental right to freedom of expression and suggesting that Chinese authorities have 242 days until the opening ceremonies to release 40 writers and journalists currently languishing in Chinese prisons.

“Today, on the 59th commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we challenge you to demonstrate that China is in fact ready – not just to stage the Olympics, but to acknowledge, protect, and celebrate the full rights of its citizens,” the Presidents of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, PEN Canada, PEN American Center proclaimed in a letter to Chinese authorities. That letter lists the 40 writers and journalists PEN considers to be imprisoned in violation of the right to freedom of expression in China, by far the largest number of any country, and calls for their immediate release.

“Without promoting human rights, which are the fundamental principle of universal ethics in China and elsewhere, it is gratuitous to promote ‘One World’ or to claim ‘We Are Ready,’” leading Chinese literary critic Liu Xiaobo said today in Beijing, echoing a letter he and 45 other prominent Chinese citizens sent to their government in August of this year. Zheng Yi, who recently succeeded Liu as President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, agreed, declaring “Let the Olympic flame burn the prisons of thought down!”

In Toronto, Canadian writer and International PEN Vice-President Margaret Atwood expressed her hope that China would view this historic moment as an opportunity. “It’s time for China to reconcile present action with past greatness and future promise,” she said. “Let’s hope that China does not ruin the international reception of its Olympic Games by keeping 40 writers in prison simply because they’ve exercised their right to freedom of expression.”

“In the United States, we’re especially appalled that US-based internet providers have assisted Chinese authorities in censoring the internet and even in identifying and imprisoning dissident journalists and bloggers,” said Francine Prose, President of PEN American Center in New York. “We join our Canadian and Chinese colleagues in calling for the release of the 40 writers and journalists in Chinese prisons, more than half of whom were jailed for writings they posted on the internet, and we call on the US Congress to pass the Global Online Freedom Act to ensure that no US-based companies are complicit in the suppression of internet writers and cyber-dissidents in the future.”

“It’s really very simple,” former PEN American Center President Salman Rushdie added. “There are 40 of our colleagues in Chinese prisons who shouldn’t be in prison. It will be an embarrassment for China if even one of them is still in prison when the Games begin next August. There’s only one good number: zero.”

Isobel Harry, PEN Canada (416) 703-8448 ext. 22
Larry Siems, PEN American Center (212) 334-1660 ext. 111
Yu Zhang, Independent Chinese PEN Center (917) 374-3957