Chinese Dissident Writer Yang Tianshui Dies of Cancer in Prison

2017-11-08
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Dissident writer Yang Tianshui is shown in hospital in Nanjing, Nov. 7, 2017.
Dissident writer Yang Tianshui is shown in hospital in Nanjing, Nov. 7, 2017.
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Dissident writer Yang Tianshui has died while serving a 12-year prison term for subversion after contracting an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was 56.

Yang, whose birth name was Yang Tongyan, died in the last year of his sentence in Nanjing Prison in the eastern province of Jiangsu following the diagnosis of a brain tumor on Aug. 12, the U.S.-based writers' group International PEN said in a statement.

Although Yang was transferred to hospital from prison following his diagnosis, his family's requests for him to seek treatment overseas were ignored, it said.

Instead, he was transferred to to a specialist hospital in Shanghai, but was cut off from contact with anyone but his closest relatives.

Yang's immediate relatives were incommunicado on Wednesday, with repeated calls to their cell phones ringing unanswered as the news of his death broke.

Nanjing-based rights activist Wang Jian said he had been unable to contact Yang's sister or nephew, meaning that it was impossible to confirm the details of Yang's death.

"I can't get in touch with his family, so I don't know what his time of death was, and I have no sources of information to learn any more," Wang said, adding that the family is likely under close surveillance or house arrest by police.

"I have no doubt about that whatsoever. They will definitely be [under police guard]," he said.

A similar pattern

The circumstances of Wang's illness and death appear to have followed a pattern similar to that of late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo in July, activists said.

Liu died weeks after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, and repeated requests from his family to seek medical treatment overseas were ignored. His wife Liu Xia, who has never been charged with any crime, remains under house arrest and continual police surveillance.

Chongqing-based rights activist Zhang Qi said the ruling Chinese Communist Party has a long history of harsh treatment of dissenting voices.

"They use methods that are politically motivated, and anti-humanitarian," Zhang said. "Their cruelty towards Yang Tianshui, and their cruelty towards Liu Xiaobo, and even towards people they purge within their own ranks, has never changed one bit [since 1949]."

According to International PEN, while new digital platforms have expanded the means of expression, they have also provided more opportunities for repression.

"In China, even a simple Tweet can land its author in jail," the group said.

"Chinese writers, journalists, and creative artists have been censored, harassed, imprisoned, and even disappeared after they speak out about sensitive topics such as the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, corruption, and the lack of democratic reform."

It said several dozen Chinese writers are currently behind bars because of their writings or other forms of creative expression.

Before his secret trial and sentencing at Jiangsu's Zhenjiang Intermediate People's Court in 2006, Yang worked as a freelance writer penning essays, novels, poems, short stories, and other writings, including critical commentaries on overseas news websites like Boxun and The EpochTimes.

He had earlier served a 10-year jail term for "counter-revolution" linked to his involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, and was held in incommunicado detention between 2004 and 2005.

Yang received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2008.

Deliberate deaths

U.S.-based Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao said the government appears lately to be deliberately accelerating the deaths of political prisoners.

"The list of dissidents and rights activist who have been persecuted to death by the government just keeps getting longer and longer," Teng told RFA.

"The human rights situation has gotten worse and worse in recent years ... and the government looks set to continue detaining them, locking them up, and handing out heavy prison terms."

The family of Hong Kong publisher Yiu Man-tin has meanwhile described similar treatment meted out to him.

Yiu, 82, was jailed for 10 years by the Shenzhen Intermediate People's Court, which found him guilty of smuggling, although his sentence was widely seen as a form of political retaliation for a scathingly critical biography of a former premier, titled "China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao."

Before his arrest, Yiu had received an anonymous phone call telling him that the book was "extremely sensitive," and warning him not to publish it or risk his personal safety and that of his family.

Yiu's wife told RFA on Tuesday that requests from the family for him to seek medical treatment outside China had been turned down by authorities in the southern city of Shenzhen, just across the internal border from Hong Kong. He is currently being treated for a number of illnesses in a prison-affiliated hospital.

"They said that his heart disease and various chronic illnesses meant that he couldn't be given leave to seek treatment overseas," his wife said. "I asked them to run tests on him and they said they already did, but they never sent me a copy of the reports."

"His mood is so low right now, and I am worried about his liver and his cerebral embolism," she said.

Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon called on the Chinese authorities to allow Yiu to go abroad.

"Based on humanitarian considerations, as well as the fact that he is very elderly, he should be able to receive proper treatment," Poon said. "If the family has applied for overseas medical parole, then the government should consider allowing it."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung, Wen Yuqing and Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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