Freedom of expression

Xi's US Visit 2015

Xi Jinping urged by leading authors to release jailed Chinese writers

More than 40 authors, including Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman and Ian McEwan, have written an open letter to the Chinese president expressing 'concern about the deteriorating state of free expression in China’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 5:48pm

Neil Gaiman,  Ian McEwan  and Jonathan Franzen  are among more than 40 authors who have put their names to a letter calling on Chinese President Xi Jinping  to release Chinese writers who “are languishing in jail for the crime of expressing their opinions”.

In an open letter published just before Xi’s first US state visit began on Tuesday (US time), the authors express their “deepest concern about the deteriorating state of free expression in China”. The letter highlights four cases of writers who are currently imprisoned in China: Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti,  sentenced to life in prison “for voicing his views online about the treatment of Uygurs”, according to PEN American Centre;  investigative journalist Gao Yu,  a 71-year-old in ill health who was sentenced to seven years in prison earlier this year; literary critic and writer Liu Xiaobo,  sentenced to an 11-year term in 2009 over calls for political reform; and his wife Liu Xia,  a painter, poet and photographer who has been under house arrest for nearly five years, according to PEN.

The signatories – who also include Guo Xiaolu,  Jennifer Egan,  Jeffrey Eugenides,  Paul Auster  and Dava Sobel  – also say in their letter to Xi that there are at least 47 writers and journalists currently in jail in China. The letter urged the president to release them.

“The imprisonment of writers and journalists damages China’s image abroad and undercuts its ambition to be a strong and respected partner on the world stage,” the letter states. “So too does broad official censorship of literature, the news media, and the internet and telecommunications technologies, as it prevents Chinese citizens from accessing accurate news and information that is in the public interest, and stifles the creativity and diversity of viewpoints that are essential to building a dynamic and competitive economy and culture.

“To that end, Mr President, we urge you to release the Chinese writers and journalists who are languishing in jail for the crime of expressing their opinions, and to take immediate steps to defend and protect the rights of all Chinese citizens to communicate and access information freely.”

In May, authors including Auster, Franzen, A.M. Homes  and Francine Prose  had joined PEN and Chinese writers and publishers Guo, Bao Pu  and Murong Xuecun  in a rally highlighting China’s imprisoned and silenced writers on the steps of the New York Public Library. They read from the works of those who had been incarcerated, including Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, Ai Weiwei  and Ilham Tohti, calling for the release of “all those imprisoned for their words in China”.

Suzanne Nossel,  executive director at PEN American Centre, said Xi had “stepped up his crackdown on dissent in recent months, trying to muffle anxieties about China’s economy and banking on the idea that there is too much at stake in terms of US-China economic and security relations for human rights to interfere with his trip”.

While in the US, Xi will attend a summit in Seattle along with major US technology companies including Google and Facebook, meet US president Barack Obama  and address the UN General Assembly  in New York.

“With all the focus on trying to foster mutual understanding amid Chinese muscle-flexing in Asia, in global markets and in cyberspace,” Nossel says, “it’s essential for American leaders to remember while listening to the [Communist] party line that some of the most forward-looking and open-minded Chinese thinkers are sitting in jail, and untold others are deterred from voicing challenges for fear of being threatened, detained or sentenced to long prison terms.” %The Guardian