The Persecution of Yang Hengjun: Where’s the Global Outrage?

Imprisoned Australian-Chinese writer’s health has taken a severe turn for the worse, but not many in the literary community seem to care

The Chinese novelist and blogger Yang Hengjun got arrested in Guangzhou a little more than four years ago. Hengjun has lived a good part of his life in Australia, and has gained the sympathy and support of parts of that nation’s legal and political classes for his bold anti-authoritarian stance. But, during a trip in 2019 that would have ended with him back in Australia had he not been a dissident, police arrested the writer for espionage—an ambiguously defined charge that Hengjun and his supporters in Australia vehemently deny.

As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, Hengjun has repeatedly spoken out against his detention since 2019. He claims that his jailers have interrogated him some 300 times and subjected him to torture. Given the communist regime’s richly documented human rights record, it’s not hard to believe.

In recent days, Hengjun’s health has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Reports have emerged of a cyst on his kidney. If true, this is a grave condition for which Hengjun cannot receive the expert and intensive care he needs while rotting in a jail on the mainland. Though the cyst is ten centimeters and potentially fatal, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has reportedly gotten nowhere in his efforts to prod the regime of Xi Jinping to release Hengjun or at least alter the terms of his confinement to make treatment viable.

Where do the leading advocates for the rights of writers and intellectuals stand on Hengjun’s appalling mistreatment? PEN America took a bold stance on the plight of this author—in 2020. The organization acknowledged that the charge of espionage against the writer was bogus and that Beijing was stepping up its persecution of those who dared speak and write and publish freely, without regard for state-enforced diktats.

But run a search for “Yang Hengjun” on the PEN America website, and you will find nothing since the October 2020 statement. Never mind that, over the intervening years, Hengjun’s status has long ceased to be classifiable as mere pre-trial detention (if it ever was), he has complained often of constant interrogation and torture, and now his health has taken this horrific turn.

PEN America is a sunshine soldier on the issue of freedom of speech. It is ever willing to take a stand on behalf of Salman Rushdie, a left-leaning author who in past years delighted in bashing Ronald Reagan. Or to call attention to the plight of writers and journalists in such patriarchal states as Egypt and Yemen. But China’s regime is a bad actor that conservatives and hawks in the U.S. government rightly loathe, and the last thing that a progressive organization wants is to be in their company or to incur the stigma of appearing to agree with them, however coincidentally, on even a single issue.

PEN America’s silence on the latest turn in the fortunes of Yang Hengjun is of a piece with its failure to take a public stand since 2015 on behalf of French author Michel Houellebecq, who has had to move abroad and had to cancel appearances and readings when people who do not like his politically incorrect take on things threatened his life. (Even to say that the outfit stood up for him is a gross exaggeration. When PEN mentioned Houellebecq at all, it was in the context of a piece decrying the jihadist attack on the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. And, even then, Houellebecq got only an incidental reference in the fourth-to-last graph.)

Houellebecq is politically incorrect on the subject of France’s and Europe’s demographic makeover, and especially on the subject of contemporary feminism. Hence a hip progressive organization wants nothing to do with him, no matter how much his plight may exemplify the frayed status of creative and intellectual liberty in our world.

And the July 2021 death of author and crime reporter Peter de Vries, at the hands of reputed associates of a Dutch-Moroccan criminal organization he helped prosecute, got a mere three sentences in a terse statement from PEN’s senior director of free expression programs.

Beijing’s mistreatment of Yang Hengjun is, as they say, shocking but not surprising. A regime that an independent counsel in London in 2021 found to be pursuing nothing less than a campaign of genocide against the Uyghurs of western China is unlikely to have a very distinguished record on freedom of speech and of the press and the rights of authors who dare to share their unfiltered thoughts with the world. Much like progressives in the West who tend to smear those they disagree with as “white nationalists,” the communist authorities have long relied on ill-defined statutes, such as the national security law imposed in June 2020, to arrest and detain dissidents like Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai.

What is contemptible is the moral cowardice of those in the West who are quick to stick their chest out and brag to the world about their progressive bona fides. BlackRock, the New York-based asset manager with an ESG bent and a cool $8.6 trillion in assets under management, came under fire from a congressional committee last month for having invested more than $429 million in companies with ties to Beijing’s military and espionage programs.

Who is chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party? That would be Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin.

Yes, Wisconsin. A flyover state that has given us such unfashionable writers as Hamlin Garland, August Derleth, Thornton Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the late Peter Straub, to name just a handful. A place whose values are antithetical to those of anyone you are likely to meet at a PEN America conference. Hence the silence of progressives on an urgent issue they profess to care about, the right of authors to speak out against repression and assert their most fundamental liberties.


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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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