News that Chinese writer and recipient of the 2008 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award Yang Tongyan has passed away, less than four months after the death of Liu Xiaobo under similar circumstances, is a further devastating loss for free expression advocates around the world and a harsh reminder of how critics of the government are treated by Chinese authorities, PEN America announced Tuesday.
According to a contact at the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), Yang Tongyan passed away after being released from Nanjing Prison on medical parole in August 2017 following his diagnosis with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He briefly returned to his home in Siyang, Jiangsu province. Although he was sent to a hospital in Shanghai that specializes in neurological care to have brain surgery, his family were informed that, as he was a “criminal,” he would not be permitted to leave the country for treatment, according to Yang’s sister.
According to Amnesty International, “Yang Tongyan was months away from completing a 12-year prison sentence when he was released on medical parole. His conviction for ‘subversion’ in 2006 was based on his writings in support of political and democratic change in China. He previously served a 10-year prison sentence for criticizing the crackdown on China’s 1989 pro-democracy movement.”
“Yang Tongyan’s death, so soon after that of Liu Xiaobo, is another black mark on the Chinese authorities’ human rights record,” said Karin Karlekar, PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs.
Yang, who wrote under the pseudonym Yang Tianshui, was a brilliant writer, literary critic, and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), an organization of leading writers working on free expression issues both inside and outside of China. He was known for his critical writings published on web sites such as Boxun.com and EpochTimes.com. His catalog of literary writing includes poems, short stories, essays, novels, and memos, many of which were written during his time in prison. In May 2006, after a three hour trial that was closed to the public, Yang was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment and four years’ deprivation of political rights by the Zhenjiang Intermediate Court in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, on charges of “subversion of state power” for writing dissident articles, and for his political activism. He had suffered from poor health for years, and had served eleven years of his twelve-year sentence before his family’s third request for medical parole was approved.
News of Yang’s death comes less than four months after Nobel Peace Laureate and notable writer Liu Xiaobo’s death in custody from liver cancer. Following Liu’s release from prison, the authorities also denied his wish to travel overseas to access high-quality medical treatment. Since his death and funeral, his widow, poet and painter Liu Xia, has been held at an unknown location and has had no contact with family and friends.
China’s extensive censorship apparatus limits freedom of speech both within and outside its borders. The situation has grown more alarming since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013, with an increased crackdown on free speech and implementation of additional censorship laws and restrictions on the internet. Lengthy prison sentences have long been used in China to silence dissident voices, and many Chinese writers, journalists, and pro-democracy activists live in fear of censorship, harassment, and incarceration as a result of speaking out about sensitive issues.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
Amnesty International is a global movement of over seven million people who, under this umbrella, campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.
“Only when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world’s people, will our work be done.” Peter Benenson, Amnesty International Founder
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