Chinese Dissident Honored for Writings

Yang Tongyan is serving a 12-year sentence in a Chinese prison for publishing anti-government articles on the Internet. Larry Siems, director of the PEN American Center, explains why Yang is being honored with the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The dissident Chinese writer Yang Tongyan is like dozens of his colleagues - in prison. He's serving a 12-year sentence for subversion of state power. His crime: using the Internet to publish articles critical of the government.

Prison is nothing new to Mr. Yang. He also served a 10-year sentence on counter-revolution charges for criticizing the government's crackdown on the Tiananmen protesters in 1989.

This week in New York, the PEN American Center awarded Yang Tongyan its Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

Larry Siems is the director of that program and he joins us now.

Mr. Siems, first, why did you choose Mr. Yang?

Mr. LARRY SIEMS (PEN American Center): Well, he's one of, as you say, 39 Chinese writers and journalists who are in prison at the current moment for their writing. In addition to that, Yang Tongyan is actually a PEN colleague of ours; there's an independent Chinese PEN Center, a really remarkable sort of chapter of our organization internationally that's composed of 200 leading Chinese writers inside and outside of China who have been really doing frontline free expression work in China. Yang is one of five independent Chinese PEN Center members who are in prison.

BLOCK: Hmm. Now, the Chinese government says it wasn't just his writings that got Yang in trouble, but also he was organizing a branch of an outlawed China Democracy Party. What do you know about that?

Mr. SIEMS: Right. Well, it's - quite interestingly, he's accused of doing that and convicted of doing that and also participating in this kind of interesting online stunt in a way in which Chinese activists inside and outside of China held elections for alternative leadership in China and he was elected to local party leadership under those elections.

You know, he's also a political activist and the writing goes hand and hand with an interest in opening up China's political system and having a multiparty democracy, and so it was really that the tenor of the writings and the previous prison sentence that led to this extremely harsh sentence.

BLOCK: With this most recent sentence, he's been in prison now for about two and half years. Has - has anyone been to see him? Do they how he's doing?

Mr. SIEMS: Well, the only person who can get to see him is his sister and she is not well. His first 10-year sentence was extremely difficult for his family. Both of his parents died while he was in prison, his wife ended up divorcing him and taking his daughter away. And so he's left really with his sister, who is a semi-invalid, but is able to see him occasionally.

BLOCK: When you were thinking about who should get the award this year, obviously the Beijing Olympics is coming up, were you mindful of that, were you trying to make a point in choosing a Chinese writer?

Mr. SIEMS: Well, certainly - the Beijing Olympics have us all thinking about the situation in China, and I think what's is important is that in inviting the Olympics, the Chinese government really invited exactly this kind of attention. It made very clear promises about its intentions to expand and protect press freedom in particular and free expression in general.

Here we are, 100 days now before the Olympic opening ceremonies and there are 39 writers and journalists in prison in China in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

BLOCK: How would you describe the climate right now in China for writers and other dissidents? Would you say it's any more or less restrictive than it has been in the past?

Mr. SIEMS: Well, I would say that there is very clearly a kind of pre-Olympics crackdown going on in which they're kind of rounding up the usual suspects in which their keeping very, very close tabs on leading dissident writers.

Clearly there were - there was a massive crack down on the press following the Tibetan disturbances and, you know, there was very little opportunity for the press to even to get into the areas where the disturbances were taking place and to cover the events. It's absolutely essential that the press be able to talk to people and to get their own information about what's going on.

BLOCK: Now, tomorrow you're going to be holding a news conference in New York with some very prominent writers, including Salman Rushdie and Edward Albee, demanding the release of writers who are jailed in China.

Do you think it's realistic to think that you can sway the Chinese government on this?

Mr. SIEMS: Well, I think the world can sway the Chinese government on this, I really do. And I think it's nothing more than asking the Chinese government to honor its pledges and to abide by its own laws and international laws.

BLOCK: The award that the PEN American Center gave to Mr. Yang this week, what happens with the money and does he even know that he won the award?

Mr. SIEMS: I understand from Mr. Lee, his attorney, that he doesn't know yet. It's just a question of when his sister gets to visit him next in prison.

BLOCK: Well, Larry Siems, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. SIEMS: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: Larry Siems is director of the PEN American Center's Freedom to Write Program.

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