Freedom of Speech: Outrage at Xu and Ding’s Imprisonment

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Strident international objections have followed China’s 14- and 12-year sentencings this week of writers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi.

Xu Zhiyong in an image made around 2018. Courtesy:

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Xu: ‘Proud To Suffer for the Sake of Freedom’
Chinese essayist Xu Zhiyong’s 14-year prison sentence—handed down on Monday in a Shandong Province court—has prompted furious criticism in many parts of the world’s free expression movement and in major news media, with Human Rights Watch calling for Beijing to throw out the sentencings both for Xu and for a second human-rights attorney, Ding Jiaxi. Ding’s prison sentence is for 12 years.

Ding Jiaxi in a photo taken around 2018. Courtesy:

A commentary from the editorial board of the Washington Post this morning (April 12), says, “Mr. Xu’s and his colleague’s prison sentences reflect the intolerable injustices that Chinese leaders have and continue to perpetrate, with no apparent shame. These activists should be released.”

Reporting from Beijing for The New York Times, Vivan Wang writes that the 14- and 12-year sentences for Xu and Ding are “some of the lengthiest such sentences in recent years and an indication of how the space for expression has evaporated under China’s leader, Xi Jinping.”

This year, the United States’ Department of State honored Ding with its Global Human Rights Defender Award, noting that he, like Xu, helped to form the New Citizens’ Movement, calling for “independent candidates to run in local elections, launching campaigns calling for government officials to disclose their personal finances, calling for property rights, and demanding educational access for migrant children.”

Tuesday (April 11), responding to the news of the 14- and 12-year sentencing for Xu (age 50) and Ding (55), the State Department was back to “condemn the People’s Republic of China’s unjust detention and sentencing … for supporting the exercise of internationally recognized fundamental freedoms, such as the freedoms of assembly and expression.  These sentences demonstrate the PRC’s expansive effort to intimidate and silence all aspects of civil society.”

The original trial for Xu and Ding is understood to have been held behind closed doors in June 2022.

Xu—previously a lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications—is a native of Henan Province, holds a doctorate in law from Peking University, and is said to have undergone torture during previous jailings. He was detained in February of 2020 in Guangzhou, despite months-long attempts to hide from authorities.

Ding was detained in December of 2019. That month, he and Xu had met with other activists in the coastal city of Xiamen. Xu and Ding are said to be close friends, after their many years of activism and shorter stints of imprisonment—four years for Xu, three-and-a-half years for Ding.

PEN’s Datt: ‘His Writing Lives On’

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that PEN America gave Xu its PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award in June 2020.

Both men are honorary members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC).

Angeli Datt, PEN America’s China research and advocacy lead, is quoted, saying, “This sentence is an outrageous assault on freedom of expression.

Angeli Datt

“The government made Xu Zhiyong an enemy of the state because he wrote about civic participation and a just and fair China. The verdict demonstrates the fundamental insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party, who fear the mighty voice of a single man.

“This 14-year sentence is a shocking and desperate act from the state to hide Xu Zhiyong from the people of China and the world. But his writing lives on outside the bars of a prison cell and the state will never stop his words from inspiring others.”

Nectar Gan, reporting from Hong Kong for CNN, writes that Ding’s wife, Luo Shengchun—who is based in the United States—says that charges leveled by the court at Xu and Ding were phrased “subversion of state power.”

She adds, “Monday’s sentencing came nearly a year after they were tried separately behind closed doors by a court in Shandong, on the grounds that their cases ‘involved state secrets.’ Both pleaded not guilty to the subversion charges.”

From Xu’s and Ding’s Statements

Xu dictated a statement prior to his sentencing, and the nonprofit human-rights watchdog organization has the text—in both English and Mandarin—of both essays.

You can read Xu’s statement here in full, thanks to China Change’s publication of this the piece, dated April 9. In part, Xu says:

“I’m proud to suffer for the sake of freedom, justice and love. I do not believe they can build national rejuvenation on the quicksand of lies. I do not believe the Chinese nation is destined to authoritarianism and slavery. I don’t believe freedom can be forever imprisoned behind high walls. And I do not believe the future will forever be a dark night without daybreak.”

And Ding’s full statement, thanks to China Change, is here, also dated April 9. Ding says, in part:

“All Chinese who care about our country’s future must shoulder the historical responsibility of our generation, which is to eradicate autocracy and build a beautiful China. This demands that we overcome the fear in our hearts, speak loudly for justice, resolutely oppose dictatorship and privileged interest groups, and reject their authoritarian rule. As long as we work as one, the light of freedom, democracy and the rule of law will surely shine on the land of China!”

Volker Turk

In a comment from the office of the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk writes, “Human rights law requires that people not be prosecuted or otherwise punished for voicing their criticism of government policies. It also requires respect for fair trial and due process rights, and proper investigations into any allegations of ill-treatment.

“I will follow up on these cases with the authorities.

“It is important that steps are taken to ensure that other human rights defenders are not targeted for exercising their human rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on freedom of expression and publication is here, and more on awards in publishing and writing is here. More from us on PEN’s work is here and more on China’s book publishing market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.