(New York, NY) – On the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, PEN America today announces it will bestow the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on Chinese essayist, civil rights activist, and lawyer Xu Zhiyong. Xu, a longtime civil rights leader, was detained February 15 for penning an essay criticizing the leadership of China’s president Xi Jinping, including his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and calling on Xi to resign.

Xu is currently being held incommunicado in state custody, and it is widely expected that he will soon be formally charged with “subverting state power,” an offense that carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence. Earlier this spring, PEN America labeled China as the top jailer of writers worldwide based on a global census published in the PEN America 2019 Freedom to Write Index.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given annually, recognizes an imprisoned writer targeted for the exercise of free expression. Of the 47 jailed writers who have received the this honor since 1987, 41 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the Award generates. By conferring the award on Xu, PEN America kickstarts a global campaign for his release.

“Xu Zhiyong has guts,” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s CEO. “His essays have served as calls to conscience at pivotal moments in China’s recent history. The one that resulted in his arrest was a detailed, blistering analysis of President Xi Jinping’s blind spots and shortcomings as a leader, published while COVID-19 still raged in China. His detention forms part of a Chinese government effort to control the global narrative about the outbreak, including by disciplining Chinese doctors and journalists who tried to sound alarm bells and punishing critics of the government response to the pandemic. In his writings, Xu has been a persistent voice calling out Beijing’s intolerance for dissent—and campaigning for social equity, rule of law, and a joyful vision for his country’s future.”

Alongside his human rights advocacy, Xu is well known for his series of online essays concerning contemporary social issues in China. He has written prolifically online on issues including access to fair education, governmental mistreatment and repatriation of migrant workers, corruption, and wasteful government spending. His essays have achieved the status of samizdat-like writing among reform-minded intellectuals and advocates across China. In the essay published just before his detention, entitled “Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go,” Xu wrote: “If you are determined to set yourself against history, you will surely visit disaster upon this country. What China needs above all other things is freedom! Only with freedom will creativity truly flourish and progress be possible.”

“Thirty-one years ago today, Chinese dissidents and activists peacefully protesting to demand greater liberty—including the freedom to speak openly and without fear—were massacred in Tiananmen Square,” said novelist and PEN America’s president Jennifer Egan. “As our own country reels in crisis, citizens peacefully demanding that leaders be held accountable must be protected. We stand in passionate solidarity with those who use language as a tool of protest—in words and writings, and as a spur to mobilize others and drive forward public debate—around the world and here at home. We are proud to honor Xu Zhiyong for his indomitable will to speak the truth in the face of grave danger, and we pledge that his voice will not be silenced, nor his name erased. We will fight on his behalf until he is free.”

PEN America’s 2019 Freedom to Write Index, the organization’s first annual global count of writers and public intellectuals unjustly detained or imprisoned worldwide, found that China held 73 writers and public intellectuals in prison or detention for their writing in 2019—more than any other country.

Traditionally bestowed at PEN America’s annual New York City gala, the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award kicks off a campaign of advocacy for the awardee’s freedom. Past honorees include Saudi writer-activists Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan (2019); Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (2018, freed in 2019), Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov (2017, freed in 2019), Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji (2016, freed in 2018), Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova (2015, freed in 2016 with continued restrictions on her movement), and Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti (2014).

PEN America’s annual gala is scheduled for December 8, 2020 at the American Museum of Natural History, health and safety permitting.


CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communciations, [email protected]