China Advocacy: Subversive Poetry, Prison, and Exile
All across the world, we at PEN have noticed a trend against freedom of expression: the number of journalists targeted for persecution is on the rise while the number of literary writers has fallen. China, however, stealthy as ever, has bucked that trend. Just this week, Chinese officials charged Independent Chinese PEN Center member Zhu Yufu with “inciting subversion of state power” for his poem, “It’s Time.” Zhu was taken into custody on March 5, 2011, during the government crackdown on potential “Jasmine” protests inspired by the Arab Spring.
This latest charge falls on the heels of two end-of-year convictions similar to Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year sentence handed down two years ago on Christmas Day. On December 23, 2011, writer Chen Wei, also picked up in the Jasmine crackdown, was tried and sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion” for seven passages from four essays he wrote that criticize the Chinese political system and praise the development of civil society. Sound familiar?
Three days later, on December 26, freelance writer Chen Xi was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison on the same charges. Chen Xi was picked up only a month earlier, on November 29, after police raided his home and confiscated his computer. His conviction was based on sentences from his essays published online outside of China.
And yesterday, we received news that Li Tie, a freelance writer who was arrested in September 2010 and tried in April 2011, was finally sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “subversion of state power.” The prosecutor offered Li’s articles as evidence.
It’s curious how the timeline of China’s legal system works: why do some remain in limbo for months or years while others are rushed through and sentenced quickly? In Zhu Yufu’s case, the prosecution actually withdrew his case from the courts last October for lack of evidence. Reports in human rights circles indicated that he would be released. Still, if a writer is indicted on subversion charges in China, you can bet that he or she will face a two- to four-hour trial, be given only moments to present a defense, and then will be convicted and sentenced to prison. The government is that scared of writers’ words that it will do whatever it takes to silence them.
Which is why last week, Yu Jie, the Independent Chinese PEN Center’s former vice president who was constantly harassed and, in 2010, tortured by Chinese authorities, fled with his family to the United States. In a press conference in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, he described in harrowing detail his ordeal and called himself a “not-free writer” and an “exile at heart” while he was in China. Like Liao Yiwu, who fled to Germany last summer, Yu Jie realized there are only three options for Chinese writers today: silence, prison, or exile.
Articles, essays, short stories, and poetry—all are potentially subversive in the eyes of the Chinese government. The question now is how to widen the space to allow China’s writers to do what they do best: write.