International PEN Concerned About Writers' Freedom of Expression in China

The International PEN organization says Beijing barred 20 Chinese writers from participating in a regional writers' forum in Hong Kong, underscoring China's tough restraints on freedom of expression. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

The Chinese writers were barred from attending a recent Asia and Pacific writers' conference in Hong Kong, where participants discussed Chinese literature and freedom of expression in the region.

The worldwide writer's group PEN organized the forum, which was held last Saturday and Sunday. PEN's international secretary, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, says the event was marred by the absence of the 20 mainland writers.

"Either they were denied exit visas or they had visas but also had visits from officials warning them not to come," she explained. "On a few occasions the writer decided to come anyway and were turned back at the border of China to Hong Kong."

One of those prevented from coming was celebrated author Zhang Yihe, whose book on Beijing opera stars was banned in China last month - along with seven books by other writers.

PEN says Beijing's latest actions highlight the continuing crackdown on freedom of expression in China, where the banning of books, newspapers and magazines has long been common practice. The organization says it is concerned by the restrictions Beijing puts on authors to write, travel and associate. According to PEN, 33 Chinese writers and journalists are in prison.

Yu Jie is one of 15 Chinese writers who managed to come to the Hong Kong conference. He says the situation for writers and journalists has worsened since Chinese President Hu Jintao came to power more than four years ago. Yu says he is constantly monitored and followed, and has been threatened by police.

He says one of the main reasons it is difficult to publish books on sensitive issues, however, is that many publishers are too afraid to print them.

Yu says that nowadays the authorities rarely try to control writers directly but instead control and punish editors and publishers.

Yu, like other mainland Chinese authors, publishes many of his writings in Hong Kong. The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but has great autonomy. The city retains a Western-style legal system and greater media freedom than mainland China. Books printed in Hong Kong, however, cannot be distributed in mainland China and so have little impact.

Yu says the best protection from being arrested is to become famous. He says Beijing does not want to risk an international outcry by detaining well-known writers.