“Write what’s in our hearts and write as
a witness to history”:
INTERNATIONAL PEN CALLS FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN CHINA
HONG KONG Feb. 5, 2007: In a historic meeting of writers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, along with writers from a dozen other countries, International PEN launched a dialogue on literature and free expression this past weekend in Hong Kong. International PEN’s Asia and Pacific Regional Conference was marred, however, by the absence of over 20 Mainland Chinese writers who were either warned off coming or were denied exit permits by the Chinese authorities. One writer, Qin Geng, had his permit rescinded. Two other writers, Zan Aizong and Zhao Dagong, were stopped at the border at the weekend and denied permission to exit China even though they had both obtained permits in advance.
Empty chairs on the podium at the sessions on literature, exiled writers, women writers, censorship, literary translation, internet publishing, copyright, and PEN’s strategic plan reminded the more than 120 participants of their missing colleagues. Fifteen writers from mainland China did attend the conference.
The actions by the Chinese government highlighted the issue of freedom of expression. Though the Chinese Constitution confirms freedom of expression and communication, this protection was challenged by the government’s actions and by the recent banning of eight books, including a book by Zhang Yihe, honorary board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre who was scheduled to speak at the conference but was unable to attend.
“PEN has nine centres representing writers in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad and has great respect for Chinese writers and Chinese literature,” said International PEN President Jiri Grusa. “But we are very concerned by the restrictions on the writers in mainland China to write, travel and associate freely.”
At the conference, which also included writers from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, the Philippines as well as from Europe, America and Australia, International PEN outlined plans for its work in the Asia and Pacific region and expressed hope that PEN could encourage greater freedom of expression
throughout the area.
“This conference was held in part to celebrate Chinese literature and to establish a dialogue among our PEN centres,” said Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, International Secretary of PEN. “Writers understand that for their societies to flourish, there must be a free exchange of ideas. Writers must be able to speak, write and publish freely.”
At the conference several of the writers who spoke had been imprisoned and had been main cases for PEN’s Writers in Prison committee work, including the celebrated Korean poet Ko Un and Chinese journalist Gao Yu. “They know first hand the role of the writer in the struggle for freedom, and they know the support PEN has given,” said one of the conference organizers Yu Zhang, General Secretary of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre.“PEN is a bridge to societies and a wedge opening up space,” said Nicholas Jose, former President of Sydney PEN. “I am no longer afraid of anything. Our bodies and our spirits are our own. To speak of ugliness and injustice we have to shout, but our throats are cut when we do,” said one Chinese writer unable to attend who sent a message to the conference.
“We are willing for some things to be burned in the soil so a new leaf will come,” said another Chinese writer unable to attend in a message to the conference. “It is important that all writers get together, and all writers protect the freedom of speech and free expression. We must write what’s in our hearts and write as a witness to history,” said Qi Jiazhen, who spent 10 years in prison in China and now lives in exile.
International PEN, which has 144 centres in 101 countries, currently works in the defence of more than 800 writers under threat around the globe, including 33 writers imprisoned in China. Founded in 1921, International PEN is the worldwide writers organization that works to promote literature, defend freedom of expression and establish a community of writers.