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Gao Yu
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Imprisoned, but not silenced

Jun Yan/ac
November 14, 2014

PEN International observes the Day of the Imprisoned Writer every year on November 15. This year, the writers' organization is focusing on DW correspondent Gao Yu, who is imprisoned in China.


Physically, Gao Yu feels "okay," her lawyer Shang Baojun told DW. The last time that Shang was allowed to visit his client in jail was on October 31 this year. 70-year-old Gao has to cope with health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease, apart from Menière's disease which is an ailment of the inner ear that affects the hearing and sense of balance.

Though Gao is receiving the necessary medicines from her warders, she gave the impression of being extremely weak, Shang said. "Compared to her earlier photographs, she seems to have lost at least 10 kilograms."

Gao Yu is one of the most intrepid journalists in China. She is renowned for not mincing words when criticizing the Chinese leadership. During a visit to New York, Gao was heard commenting: "Today's China is a combination of a latter-day Nazi state and Stalinist communism." The video can be viewed on YouTube.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak poses for photographers before of a press conference in Rome, 4 june 2007, on the eve of International Literature Festival (Photo: Maxppp/Riccardo De Luca +++(c) dpa - Report+++)
Elif Shafak, a prominent Turkish writer, has published an open letter to Gao on the Day of the Imprisoned WriterImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Gao has already been incarcerated twice for her criticism of China's political system. Her third time in prison began on April 24, 2014. According to Chinese state media, Gao is supposed to have passed a "highly confidential document" to a "contact outside the country."

It remains unclear exactly which document Gao allegedly handed over to a foreign contact. It has been conjectured that the file in question could be the so-called "Document No. 9" of the Communist Party. "Document No. 9" is said to list the threats to the Communist Party and suggests a more rigorous ideological stance.

Writing for DW

Gao began her career in journalism with China News Service - China's official news agency. The agency constitutes an important component of the propaganda apparatus of the Chinese state. As such, Gao was in a position to establish good relations with the highest echelons of the party leadership. Gao's friends report that she was on good terms with the children of powerful party chiefs such as Lin Biao and Deng Xiaoping. Lin was the deputy chief of the party under Mao Zedong – and was even being touted as Mao's likely successor at one time. After Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping steered China's destiny almost single-handedly until his own death in 1997.

Using her contacts among the top leadership, Gao tried to advocate reform from within the authoritarian system. She wrote numerous commentaries and reports for Deutsche Welle's Chinese program. In her last article for DW before her arrest in April, 2014, Gao underlined the significance of reform-oriented party chief Hu Yaobang, who was deposed in 1986. Gao threw light upon the inner conflicts of the new Chinese leadership in this manner.

Forced confession

After her latest arrest, Gao was paraded in Chinese television without having been convicted first. She was seen to regret in front of running cameras that her behavior had "damaged national interest," apart from transgressing the law. Gao was heard saying that she would "accept a punishment in accordance with Chinese law."

Later, Gao retracted her confession, telling her lawyer Shang Baojun that she had made her confession only to protect her son – as Shang told DW. When the Chinese police arrested Gao towards the end of April, they arrested her son Zhao Meng as well. Gao stated that the police had used her son to pressure her into making a confession. A month later, the security officials set her son free.

International support

DW Director General Peter Limbourg has criticized the Chinese authorities sharply for their treatment of Gao Yu. It was "inhumane to parade her on television like a common criminal," Limbourg wrote, adding that Gao Yu had "the right to a fair and free trial." Limbourg is seriously worried about Gao's fate and is availing every possible opportunity of getting in touch with the Chinese authorities to plead for her release.

DW's Director General Peter Limbourg
DW Director General Peter LimbourgImage: DW/M. Magunia

Support for Gao is also growing in other parts of the world. Elif Shafak, who counts among the most prominent women writers of Turkey, has published an open letter to Gao on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Elif writes in her letter:

"We have never met in person. Yet the honesty, integrity and power of your words and your exceptional courage have travelld beyond the borders of China and reached my heart. [...] I would like you to know that there are many people across the globe who are aware of the unfair treatment and hardships you are going through."

Such expressions of support will help Gao to remain mentally strong, but she is still waiting for her first hearing, which might take place any day now. She had let it be known through her lawyer that her family should bring her warm clothes, since winter is around the corner, suggesting that she thinks she may be spending a while in jail.

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