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New York Times: Chinese Writer Says He’s Forbidden From Traveling to U.S. for Harvard Prize

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The New York Times
By Michael Forsythe
February 16, 2016

■ Hong Kong — The author of a landmark book documenting the millions of deaths from China’s Great Famine said on Tuesday that his former employer, the official Xinhua News Agency, had forbidden him from traveling to Harvard University next month to receive an award honoring his courage and integrity.

In his 2008 book, “Tombstone,” the writer, Yang Jisheng, showed how the deaths of 36 million people during the 1958-62 famine, one of the worst man-made disasters in history, were a result of disastrous government policies under Mao. The book, published after Mr. Yang left Xinhua in 2001, is banned in China. He said by telephone from Beijing on Tuesday that officials from the agency had met with him, telling him he was forbidden to travel to Harvard.

In December, Mr. Yang, 75, was awarded the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism by the Nieman Fellows at Harvard, a group of professional journalists spending an academic year at the university’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. The fellows said Mr. Yang was “a role model to all who seek to document the dark and difficult struggles of humankind.” He had been scheduled to receive the award in person in early March.

In China under President Xi Jinping, journalists who stray from the Communist Party’s official line are increasingly being muzzled as part of a widespread crackdown on civil society that has led to human rights lawyers and feminists being imprisoned, influential bloggers having their social media accounts deleted and professors being told to limit the use of foreign textbooks.

Yang Jisheng, shown in 2013, was awarded the Louis M. Lyons
Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism by the
Nieman Fellows at Harvard.
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
In Mr. Yang’s case, he may have fallen victim to new rules on what retired Communist Party cadres can say, and specifying that their public opinions must have “a high level of consistency with the Party Central under comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping.” As a senior reporter for China’s government-owned official news service for many decades, Mr. Yang was a longtime party member. But he has also been highly critical of the government, dealing a devastating blow to the official account of the famine and Mao’s legacy in his book, and speaking out in public forums around the world.

Until now, he was allowed to travel internationally to receive accolades for his work. Last year, Mr. Yang went to Sweden to receive the Stieg Larsson prize, an award established in memory of the crime writer and journalist, who died in 2004, and given to people working in his spirit. In 2013, he traveled to the United States to receive the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize, named after the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. There, he delivered a scathing indictment of modern China under the Communists, who he said had created a society in which “only the already powerful can acquire wealth.”

“China’s path to harmony and stability is to reject this system and instead to heed Hayek’s call to avoid government coercion, respect individual freedom and allow further economic and political liberalization,” Mr. Yang said.

Although Mr. Yang said on Tuesday that he had his passport, leaving the country against the wishes of Xinhua, a powerful arm of the government and Communist Party, might jeopardize any plans he might have to publish future works. Calls during working hours to Xinhua’s main office in Beijing went unanswered.

In a statement late Monday, before Mr. Yang spoke to reporters, the Nieman Fellows said they remained hopeful that he would be able to attend the March 10 dinner in his honor, where he was expected to give a speech.

“We are following all necessary steps to enable Mr. Yang to travel to Harvard in March,” Hamish Macdonald and Debra Adams Simmons, who oversee the Lyons Award, wrote in an emailed statement. “We have no formal indication of any problem and look forward to welcoming Mr. Yang.”


Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.


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