Day of the Imprisoned Writer: Gao Yu

by Rosie Frost

We are fourteen years into the 21st century, the UN Declaration on Human Rights, enshrining the fundamental freedoms such as those of expression and association, was ratified in 1949, and as a continually rising economic and geopolitical power, China has played a continuously more substantial role in world politics. And yet within China, these basic fundamental freedoms and rights continue to be limited. Journalist, PEN member and critical political analyst Gao Yu, is one imprisoned writer we should think about this Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2014.


Aged 70, she was imprisoned for over a year in 1989, for an article she wrote in support of the pro democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, and again from 1993-99 for a series of articles that the state accused her of selling state secrets in.

On the 23rd April 2014, Gao Yu disappeared, and resurfaced on television on the 8th of May, confessing to leaking state secrets abroad. According to her lawyer, the charges relate to articles Gao Yu wrote about ‘Document 9’, a document circulated within the Communist Party of China in 2013, which warned against the dangers of Western values, such as free press and judicial independence. She has since remained in dentition, illegally without charge.

Deutsche Wells has reported that Yun’s confession has since been retracted, and was only made to protect her son, who was also arrested, but has since been released. With her whereabouts once again unknown, and with existing health issues, there are obvious concerns for her welfare. In the longer term, there are also serious doubt about her chances of a fair trial. Whilst there are obviously clear moral violations in this case, PEN international indicates how Gao Yu’s treatment is also  illegal.

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrines the right to a fair trial.

It includes the right not to be compelled to testify against yourself or to confess guilt. It also contains all fundamental civil and political freedoms, such as freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. China is a signatory of the Covenant, and as such is obliged to abide by these international laws. In domestic law, article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China also provides for freedom of speech

Gao Yu has never skirted around the issues surrounding the Chinese government. There is a video on Youtube in which she is heard to describe today’s China as “a combination of a latter-day Nazi state and Stalinist communism.” In an article she wrote in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, she discussed explicit and implicit limits and constraints on press freedom, describing the situation now as worse than when she was imprisoned in the ’90s. When journalists with unwanted opinions don’t fall directly outside the law, the government will find plenty of ways that journalists  “can run into legal complications.” She even uses the example of “a party head [who] sent his own private guards to beat up someone whose articles they weren’t satisfied with.”

The international support for her and condemnation of China is picking up.  Pen International is calling for Gao Yu’s immediate release and expressing concerns for her well being, including lack of access to family and a lawyer of her choice. It is also reminding China of its legal obligations to civil and political rights. Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer, published an open letter of support in the Guardian this weekend. And on 15th November, when we celebrate and raise awareness for Imprisoned Writers, who better to think of, than this veteran journalist, who  already has, and continues, to sacrifice her freedom to speak out and make us all aware of  injustices, political hypocrisy and corruption, which it is everyone’s right to know, and be protected from.


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