The PEN Pod: Honoring PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Winner Xu Zhiyong with Teng Biao
Today marks the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when Chinese forces killed an unknown number of demonstrators clamoring for reform. On today’s edition of The PEN Pod, we announce the winner of our 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, imprisoned Chinese writer and activist Xu Zhiyong. Xu has long been a forceful voice for change in China, and earlier this year, wrote an essay critical of China’s president. He has been held incommunicado since February of this year, and it is believed he will soon be charged with subverting state power, a charge that can carry a 15-year prison sentence. We spoke with Xu’s friend, scholar and advocate Teng Biao, about the importance of Xu’s writings and the state of free expression in China now. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Teng is up until the 11:11 mark).
Who is Xu Zhiyong, and what role has he played in pressing for human rights in China?
Xu Zhiyong decided to fight for human rights and democracy in China when he was a high school student. We were classmates in Peking University. After we got our PhDs, he taught at a university in Beijing. And then in 2003, we got involved in a very influential case. Since then, he became one of the leading human rights activists in China. We founded Gongmeng (The Open Constitution Initiative), initiated in 2003. And Gongmeng then became one of the leading NTOs focusing on human rights resources in China. Because of his work, he has been arrested, put under house arrest, and sentenced a few times. So he played a very significant role in the human rights movement in China since the early 2000s.
As you mentioned, this isn’t his first brush with imprisonment and house arrest in his past. I’m wondering, how do you believe he’s been able to persevere despite China’s insistence on silencing him?
In 2009, Gongmeng was shut down, and Dr. Xu Zhiyong was arrested and detained for a month. That was his first detention. Then, he continued his human rights work, and he was banned from teaching at the university and eventually fired by the university. In 2013, because he led in the New Citizens’ Movement, he was arrested and then sentenced for four years. After serving four years in prison, he started his Citizens’ Movement again. So, he was very, very courageous. And then we know last December, he organized a meeting in Xiamen, and some human activists and lawyers were arrested after that meeting. Xu Zhiyong himself actually continued to write articles and was critical of Xi Jinping and of the way the Chinese government was handling coronavirus. He was arrested on February 15.
“Because of his work, [Xu Zhiyong] has been arrested, put under house arrest, and sentenced a few times. So he played a very significant role in the human rights movement in China since the early 2000s.”
So what do we know about his status at this time? What do you hear from activists on the ground?
His family and his lawyers were not allowed to meet him. So he was kept incommunicado and lost his freedom. His girlfriend, Li Qiaochu—who was calling for his release and also a human rights activist—was arrested one day after Xu Zhiyong disappeared. So, we have very, very limited information on Xu Zhiyong’s current situation. The local police told his family that he might be charged with incitement of state separation or state subversion. And according to the lawyers who were detained previously—every human rights lawyer who was kept in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), kind of forced to disappear—has been tortured. So I worry very much that he might have been tortured now.
It’s a scary time for him, his family, and those who know him. I wonder, as you said before, he’s already endured so much. Why do you think his work is critical right now? Why is his writing so important right now amid a global pandemic?
The coronavirus gave us a lesson that freedom of expression and free speech are actually related not only to human rights and human dignity, but also to people’s health and lives. The coronavirus gave us a lesson that freedom of expression and free speech are actually related not only to human rights and human dignity, but also to people’s health and lives. If the Chinese government did not cover up the truth of coronavirus and did not suppress this, then this coronavirus wouldn’t be so serious. It could have been easily controlled in the very early stages. So the people fighting for freedom of expression in China actually are fighting for the people’s health and lives—not only in China, but also the whole world. In other words, China is one-party ruled. China’s atrocity and human rights violation had been a threat to global freedom and global security.
“The coronavirus gave us a lesson that freedom of expression and free speech are actually related not only to human rights and human dignity, but also to people’s health and lives. If the Chinese government did not cover up the truth of coronavirus and did not suppress this, then this coronavirus wouldn’t be so serious. . . So the people fighting for freedom of expression in China actually are fighting for the people’s health and lives—not only in China, but also the whole world.”
PEN America named China as the top jailer of writers in 2019. What is the climate like in China right now for those trying to speak out?
Since Xi Jinping, first the Chinese government has always suppressed people’s freedom and fundamental human rights. It’s a one-party rule, and it never tolerates people’s challenges to their monopoly power. Many human rights lawyers, bloggers, writers, and religious activists were persecuted, and since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the human rights situation is deteriorating. So the human rights activists were frequently taken away, and many have been tortured. This censorship on the internet, on campuses, is more strict than ever before. Yesterday, an activist was detained after he participated in an online virtual commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre. We know in Xinjiang, more than two million Uyghurs and ethnic minorities have been detained in the concentration camps. That’s the worst humanitarian disaster in the 21st century.
And also, Hong Kong. Recently, the National People’s Congress passed the decision of Hong Kong’s national security law. So the Communist Party wants to deprive the people of Hong Kong of their fundamental freedom. They want to punish the people of Hong Kong who criticize the government or party. It’s all really, really alerting. Another point is that the Chinese government is using high technology to tighten its control on society. Facial recognition, voice print recognition, big data, and artificial intelligence all have been used by the communist government to establish what I call high-tech totalitarianism. This high-tech totalitarianism is unprecedented, and it is a threat to global human rights and freedom.
Send a message to The PEN Pod
We’d like to know what books you’re reading and how you’re staying connected in the literary community. Click here to leave a voicemail for us. Your message could end up on a future episode of this podcast!