China: The Price of Dissent by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

China: The Price of Dissent


As the British government becomes increasingly eager to strengthen trade links with China, it is worth sparing a thought for those writers and journalists who are imprisoned for their writing or otherwise harassed, in violation of their right to free expression. The number of detained writers in China is among the highest in the world. According to PEN, the suppression of free expression in China remains endemic. Recent crackdowns have occurred in Beijing, numerous inland and coastal provinces, the autonomous regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, and in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

For instance, in January 2014, the academic, economist and PEN member Ilham Tohti (LR, April 2014), a Uyghur, was arrested at his home and held incommunicado. On 23 September 2014, he was convicted of ‘splittism’ and sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of all his property. Two months later, Xinjiang’s high court rejected Tohti’s appeal against his conviction and upheld the life sentence.

In 2015, PEN documented over forty cases of writers held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Many are held under vague national security provisions of China’s criminal law. They include outspoken writer Zhang Haitao, whose nineteen-year sentence for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and ‘providing intelligence overseas’ was upheld in Xinjiang’s high court on 28 November 2016. The veteran journalist Gao Yu (LR, June 2014), aged seventy-two, is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for ‘leaking state secrets abroad’ under house arrest on medical grounds. Gao, who remains in fragile health, may be sent back to prison at any time. The authorities continue to crack down on writers and activists in Tibet too. In 2015, PEN recorded the persecution of sixteen Tibetan writers, including Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang, editor of the Tibetan-language website Chomei, and Gartse Jigme, who is also a monk.

In the same year, five Hong Kong booksellers known for selling works banned on the mainland, Gui Minhai, Cheung Jiping, Lam Wing Kee, Lee Bo and Liu Por, disappeared in mysterious circumstances. I’ve written previously in these pages about the case of Gui (LR, November 2016), who vanished from his holiday home in Thailand in October 2015. Gui is a Swedish citizen and a former board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC). There was no word from him until he appeared in a televised ‘confession’, broadcast in mainland China, three months after his disappearance. Gui is a cofounder of Mighty Current, a publishing house based in Hong Kong that prints books often critical of the Chinese Communist Party. PEN considers Gui to be a victim of enforced disappearance and believes that he has been detained in violation of Articles 9 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory.

ICPC is regularly targeted by the Chinese authorities. At least eight members are currently imprisoned or detained, while others face harassment for their activities. These include Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (LR, July 2009 & May 2013). Liu, a former president of ICPC, is serving an eleven-year prison sentence for coauthoring ‘Charter 08’, an extraordinary declaration calling for political reform, respect for human rights and an end to one-party rule. Liu’s wife, Xia, a renowned poet, artist and ICPC member, continues to be held under house arrest in her Beijing apartment without charge.

Most recently, on 26 September 2016, blogger, activist and ICPC member Liu Yanli was arrested on charges of criminal defamation in connection with her posts on social media. These were mostly copied from other media and shared on WeChat; they were reportedly critical of the ruling party leadership and former Chinese leaders, including Mao and Zhou Enlai. Liu’s writing is often critical of the Chinese government, the local authorities and the police. In one blog post she expressed her frustration with the police’s handling of her application for a travel permit to attend a meeting in Hong Kong. Since 2009, the authorities have harassed Liu as a result of her work, summoning her for questioning and confiscating her computer.

On 10 December 2016, The Guardian published an open letter to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, calling on him to end his government’s fierce crackdown on writers and dissidents. Signatories included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, J M Coetzee, Yann Martel, Salman Rushdie, Elif Shafak and Colm Tóibín. On 3 May 2017, to mark World Press Freedom Day, PEN will deliver the letter to the Chinese Embassy in London. To add your name to the petition please visit

Readers might also like to send appeals calling for the release of all writers, journalists and publishers imprisoned in the People’s Republic of China, in violation of their right to freedom of expression; urging the authorities to cease the harassment and persecution of members of the ICPC and to lift all restrictions on ICPC members’ freedom to leave and enter mainland China; calling for an end to enforced disappearance and the use of forced confessions, which contravene an individual’s right to fair trial; and urging the authorities to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was signed by the People’s Republic of China in October 1998.

Appeals to be addressed to:

His Excellency Ambassador Liu Xiaoming
Chinese Embassy, 49 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981

His Excellency Xi Jinping
President of the People’s Republic of China
State Council, Beijing 100032
People’s Republic of China
Fax: +86 10 6238 1025

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