A World of Poets: Shi Tao and Liu Xiaobo


To mark World Poetry Day tomorrow, Thursday 21 March, all this week we are honouring poets who have been persecuted or imprisoned in violation of their right to free expression. Today we pay tribute to Chinese poets Shi Tao and Liu Xiaobo, Honorary Members of English PEN, both of whom are serving prison sentences of over a decade in violation of their right to free expression.

Shi Tao: Freelance journalist, writer and poet

In April 2Shi Tao photo004, during the run up to the 15th anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government issued journalists with guidelines, advising them on how to report on events and warning them not to publish articles about pro-democracy activists returning to the country to mark the occasion. Using his Yahoo! email account, Shi Tao sent a summary of the directive to US-based website Democracy Forum. On 24 November, he was arrested at his home and his personal belongings were confiscated, among them samples of his writing.

On 27 April 2005, Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and 2 years deprivation of political rights by the Changsha Municipal Intermediate People’s Court for ‘revealing state secrets’. It later emerged that Yahoo!’s Hong Kong division had provided detailed information to the police, enabling them to link Shi Tao’s message to his personal account and the address of his computer. The sentence was upheld on appeal on 2 June 2005; he was not allowed to attend the appeal hearing.

Twelve months into his sentence, Shi Tao’s health had deteriorated considerably as a result of forced labour. In 2007 he was transferred to another prison, where conditions improved. Later that year Yahoo! settled a lawsuit lodged by Shi Tao’s family, pledging to provide an undisclosed amount of ‘financial, humanitarian and legal support’.

In May 2010, Shi Tao was transferred to Yinchuan Prison in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. It is believed that the improvements in his prison conditions, which have in turn improved his health, are a result of continued international pressure. He is due for release on 25 November 2014.

Liu Xiaobo: Writer, activist, and the only Nobel laureate currently in detention

liu xiaoboLiu Xiaobo was arrested on 8 December 2008 on the eve of the release of Charter 08, an extraordinary declaration he had co-authored calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule. Liu was subsequently held under ‘residential surveillance’, a form of pre-trial detention, in a windowless room at an undisclosed location in Beijing for more than six months.

On 23 June 2009 Liu was formally charged and transferred to the Public Security Bureau Detention Centre in Beijing, where he reported an improvement in his conditions; he was allowed outside and had detainees in his cell with whom he could talk. On 25 December 2009 Liu was convicted of ‘incitement to subversion’; he was sentenced to eleven years in prison.

Liu Xiaobo has been a prominent member of PEN and. He first received support from PEN International in 1989, when he was one of a group of writers and intellectuals given the label the “Black Hands of Beijing” by the government and arrested for their part in the Tiananmen Square protests. Prior to his current arrest, Liu has spent a total of five years in prison, including a three year sentence passed in 1996, and has suffered frequent short arrests, harassment and censorship. In 2010 Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his long and non-violent struggle for human rights in China. 

Liu Xiaobo is due to be released on 21 June 2020.


Send a message of support

Sending messages of support directly to writers in prison has been shown to afford detainees better treatment in prison, as well as providing much-needed moral support. If you would be interested in sending a message of support directly to Liu Xiaobo and Shi Tao, please email us to request their addresses.

Read and share their work

Liu Xiaobo: You Wait for me With Dust

Translation by Zheng Danyi, Shirley Lee and Martin Alexander

Liu Xiaobo: One Letter

Translation by Jeffrey Yang

Shi Tao: June

Translation by Chip Rolley

Join us to celebrate World Poetry Day

Celebrate World Poetry Day by joining our inaugural student group, KCL English PEN, for Human Writes, a night of SLAM poetry in Bethnal Green. With the amazing, ever-energetic Joelle Taylor (The Poetry Society) as host, the night will begin with a couple of sets from SLAM and spoken word greats (Megan Beech & Femi Martin), then they’ll open the floor and let the competition commence! 12 three minute slots are available. Email mary.horgan@kcl.ac.uk if you’d like to perform, or just sign up for a slot on the door. The winner will go home with a English PEN tote stuffed with PEN goodies – and everyone will have a chance to take action on behalf of writers at risk of concern to PEN.

  • Thursday 21 March
  • Doors at 7pm. The show will start promptly at 7.30pm.
  • The Gallery Cafe, 21 Old Ford Rd, London, Greater London E2 9PL
  • Suggested donation £3 – all proceeds to English PEN.
Postcards written by Student PEN members to imprisoned Nobel Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo (Photo: Cat Lucas / English PEN)

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

View all posts by Cat Lucas →

One Comment on “A World of Poets: Shi Tao and Liu Xiaobo”

  1. The poets of the USA support you in your work. Freedom of expression is not something governments can give or take away. It is as inalienable as an infant’s first cry.
    Ron Silliman

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