Set Culture Free: Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China

By | May 3, 2013 at 9:57 am | One comment | News | Tags: , , ,

The Human Cost of China’s Censorship

Today, PEN International released Set Culture Free: Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China, presenting findings on the ongoing threats to individual writers and journalists in China and an assessment of the climate for freedom of expression in the world’s most populous state. These findings and assessments are echoed and amplified throughout the report in ten essays contributed by leading writers living inside and outside of China.


1. Freedom of expression continues to be curtailed in China, despite pledges by Chinese leaders to safeguard and expand essential rights in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

  • There has been an escalating series of crackdowns on targeted writers and activists since 2008, and widespread and ongoing crackdowns on freedom of expression in Tibetan regions and the Xinjiang Uighur and Inner Mongolian Autonomous Regions.
  • The human cost of these crackdowns has been severe, as prison sentences handed down to writers have lengthened dramatically and as authorities have begun to bypass the courts completely, detaining writers incommunicado in secret locations and subjecting them to abusive interrogations.


2. Chinese citizens are breaking through the barriers of censorship and self-censorship by finding new ways and using new tools to share their experiences and opinions, including highly critical social and political views.

  • Chinese people have increased their capacity, creativity, and sense of freedom to express critical thoughts and ideas, despite widespread censorship of the Internet and wholesale surveillance of its users.
  • The government has responded with new attempts to impose control but the people appear determined to hold, and expand, the ground they’ve gained.
  • The increasingly assertive voices of China’s citizens is the single most important phenomenon for freedom of expression in today’s China.


3. Ongoing government efforts to silence dissident voices coupled with the Chinese people’s ability to creatively respond has created a pressure from above/pressure from below dynamic that is playing out in the realm of literature.

  • State-controlled publishers and writers associations are now competing with private publishing houses and with individual writers who are publishing their work directly on the internet.
  • China’s stature as a major player in the international literary scene is being undercut by its efforts to extend a censoring hand, despite China’s increasingly visible presence at international book fairs and the awarding of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature to state-approved but often critical writer Mo Yan.



PEN International therefore calls on the government of the People’s Republic of China to:

1. Restore and protect the right of all writers, journalists, and bloggers in China to exercise their right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Chinese constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by:

  • Immediately and unconditionally releasing Liu Xiaobo from prison and Liu Xia from extralegal house arrest.
  • Immediately and unconditionally releasing Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) members Shi Tao, Yang Tongyan, and Zhu Yufu, and all other writers, journalists, and bloggers listed in this report who are currently imprisoned or detained, either in detention facilities or in residential confinement, in violation of their right to freedom of expression.
  • Ending all forms of surveillance and harassment of writers, journalists, and bloggers in China. This includes but is not limited to: dismantling surveillance cameras placed outside the homes of dissident writers; removing guards who are posted outside and inside the homes of writers under house arrest or surveillance; terminating all electronic surveillance including monitoring cell phone conversations, text messages, and email messsages; and ending the practice of informal questioning and warnings by police against writers.
  • Instituting legal reforms that will end the imprisonment and extralegal detentions of writers for the exercise of their legitimate right to freedom of expression, including:Immediately banning the use of enforced disappearance, house arrest, and all other forms of detention without trial or due process;
  • Ending the use of administrative sentences including “residential surveillance” and “reeducation through labor”;
  • Amending China’s criminal code—particularly Article 105 on “subversion,” Article 111 on “state secrets,” and Article 103 on “splittism” against writers—to ensure that these provision do not penalize the practice of peaceful freedom of expression.


2. Respect and protect the right of Chinese citizens to a free and independent press, as guaranteed under Article 19 of the ICCPR, and guarantee the right of Chinese and international journalists to practice their profession without fear of persecution, by:

  • Ending censorship of print, digital, and broadcast media and dismantling government structures and offices that carry out press censorship and otherwise exert pressure on the press.
  • Allowing full media access to so-called “sensitive areas” including Tibet and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and allowing domestic and international journalists unfettered access to these regions and peoples.
  • Encouraging and fostering the establishment of private, independently-owned media outlets that operate free of governmental interference.


3. Respect and protect the right of writers and publishers in China to publish without fear of reprisals or government interference, and foster the creation of domestic and internationally-treasured literature and the growth of a world-class publishing industry, by:

  • Ending systematic censorship and book bannings;
  • Stopping post-publication retributions against publishers and editors who publish disfavoured material, including firings, harassment, closures, and the denial of new ISBN numbers;
  • Relinquishing state control of ISBNs and creating a fully independent agency that allows both state-controlled and independent publishers equal and unfettered access to ISBNs.


4. Uphold the right of all Chinese citizens to exercise fully their right to freedom of expression under Chinese and international law by:

  • Ending Internet censorship and the blocking or suppression of all digitally transmitted information to which access is guaranteed under international standards of freedom of expression;
  • Ceasing all surveillance of digital communications. This includes but is not limited to state monitoring of emails, Skype conversations, SMS and text messages, and microblog and blog content.


5. Protect the fundamental right of ethnic minorities and all who are living in so-called “sensitive regions” to full freedom of expression by:

  • Abandoning the practice of shutting down the Internet in certain regions, including Tibet and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, during periods of unrest;
  • Respecting the linguistic rights of Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, and all minorities, as well as their right to cultural expression including freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.


6. Ensure the vitality and reach of China’s languages and literatures, and the international stature, influence, and impact of its literatures and other cultural exports, by:

  • Altering its approach to international book fairs and other cultural events overseas, demonstrating a tolerance for diverse and independent voices and opinions in conversations about the country;
  • Lifting travel bans and restrictions on dissidents and other disfavored writers and ensuring that all China’s writers, journalists, and bloggers can travel freely outside China;
  • Ending visa denials for international writers, journalists, and scholars and ensuring that visiting writers, journalists, and scholars can travel freely inside China.

To encourage positive action by the Chinese government on the above recommendations, we call on the international community to:

  • Use every opportunity and all available diplomatic means to press for the release of Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, and all writers, journalists, and bloggers currently in prison or in detention in China in denial of their right to freedom of expression;
  • Officially protest all attacks and restrictions on domestic and international journalists working in China and demand conditions for domestic and international media workers that meet accepted international standards.
  • Support and foster private and joint-venture traditional and new media outlets and publishing houses and demand full freedom of expression protections for all international and joint-venture media and publishing operations in China.
  • Reject requests by Chinese publishers to censor, alter, or adapt the content of international publications for Chinese editions.
  • End all government and private sector complicity with, support for, or facilitation of censorship and surveillance organs and technologies and press the Chinese government to adopt and comply with emerging international norms guaranteeing the digital freedom of all citizens.
  • Foster and engage in an energetic, open, and free exchange of literature and ideas that includes welcoming a full range of Chinese voices, including those who are currently barred from official delegations and those who are currently forced to live in exile.
  • Celebrate and encourage the growing richness and diversity of discourse in Chinese literature, traditional media, and new media by expanding opportunties for Chinese writers, journalists, and bloggers to have their work translated and published outside of China.


About the Report

PEN’s concern about the treatment of individual writers in China is connected in no small part to the experiences of PEN members in China, including poet and critic Liu Xiaobo, a founding member and past president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year prison sentence for seven sentences that allegedly amount to “incitement to subversion of state power.” His freedom, and the freedom of his wife, Liu Xia, who has been held in extralegal, incommunicado house arrest in her apartment in Beijing since Liu’s Nobel Prize selection was announced, remains one of PEN’s highest organisational priorities. This report:

  • tracks the fate of over 100 writers who were jailed, assaulted, held in extrajudicial detention, or hounded into exile in the last five years. They include Liu Xiaobo, a former President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, and 16 other PEN Members.
  • is the culmination of five years of research and advocacy on behalf of writers, journalists, and bloggers targeted for their work in China
  • is the product of a close collaboration of writers and PEN members inside and outside of China
  • includes ten essays by leading Chinese writers illuminating situation for freedom of expression in China from—at times harrowing—personal experience


About PEN
PEN International celebrates literature and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 1921, our global community of writers now comprises 144 Centers spanning more than 100 countries. Our programs, campaigns, events and publications connect writers and readers for global solidarity and cooperation. PEN International is a non-political organization and holds consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO.

Photo creditLennart Preiss/AP

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