A pioneering journalist who fought to expose the deaths of tens of millions of his fellow citizens in China’s Great Famine has been banned from leaving the country to accept a prize for his work in the United States.
Yang Jisheng, a retired correspondent from Beijing’s official news service Xinhua, was awarded Harvard University’s prestigious Louis M Lyons Award in December for his “ambitious and fearless reporting” on one of the 20th century’s deadliest man-made catastrophes.
The prize, which Yang had hoped to collect at a ceremony in Massachusetts next month, was in recognition of his 2008 book Tombstone.
The 1,200-page work – considered the most authoritative account of a tragedy China’s Communist leaders still attempt to conceal – meticulously documents the horrific toll of the 1958-1961 famine in which the author estimates at least 36 million lives were lost, including that of his own father.
Announcing its decision to honour Yang last year, Harvard said it hoped to recognise courageous and dedicated journalists who were battling to “document the dark and difficult struggles of humankind”.
However, the Guardian understands that Xinhua, the state-run news agency for which Yang worked, has forbidden the 75-year-old author from travelling to the US to collect the award.
In a brief response to a faxed request for comment, a Xinhua spokesperson said: “[W]e never heard Mr Yang received an award, so we are not able to give you any response.”
In a statement, the co-chairs of the Lyons Award, Hamish Macdonald and Debra Adams Simmons, said: “We remain optimistic that Chinese journalist and author Yang Jisheng will be granted permission to travel to Harvard University on Thursday 10th March 2016 to accept the annual Louis M Lyons Award.
“We are following all necessary steps to enable Mr Yang to travel to Harvard in March. We have no formal indication of any problem and look forward to welcoming Mr Yang.”
Contacted by telephone on Monday, Yang, who lives in Beijing, declined to discuss the situation.
Yang Jisheng was born in the central province of Hubei in 1940, nine years before Chairman Mao’s communists seized power.
As a young man he was a committed member of the Communist party, which he joined in 1964. After graduating from Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University in 1966 he quickly secured a job at Xinhua where he worked until his retirement in 2001.
But Yang’s enthusiasm for the party faded as he journeyed across China on reporting trips and came to grasp the scale of the human tragedy Mao’s Great Leap Forward push for industrialisation had unleashed on his country.
“The chief culprit was Mao,” Yang later recalled in an interview.
In the early nineties, further disillusioned by the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the journalist began secretly piecing together the famine’s hidden history as a way of remembering those who had died.
He roamed the country, surreptitiously building up an extensive body of first-hand interviews and documentary evidence about a disaster that has been described as China’s hidden Holocaust.
“I just had a very strong desire to find out the facts,” Yang told the Guardian in 2012. “I was cheated and I don’t want to be cheated again.”
Yang’s unprecedented investigation – first published in Hong Kong in 2008 and unavailable to this day in mainland China – earned him plaudits around the world.
The author has received a succession of international awards for his work and was previously able to travel overseas to receive them.
In November last year Yang visited Sweden to accept the Stieg Larsson award in recognition of the “journalistic courage he has shown in finding and telling the truth” about the Great Famine.
The travel ban is the latest sign of the increasingly toxic political climate in China.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012 academics, journalists, authors, lawyers and activists have all complained of increasing pressure from authorities.
Experts say many talented young Chinese journalists are abandoning the profession, partly because of their frustration at intensifying censorship.
Historians meanwhile complain that securing access to government archives containing material about sensitive periods such as the Great Famine has become increasingly difficult.
In the introduction to the English edition of his book, Yang said his 15-year inquiry into the famine was an attempt to expose how a totalitarian system had attempted to forcibly eradicate all memory of the disaster.
“A tombstone is memory made concrete. Human memory is the ladder on which a country and a people advance,” he wrote. “I erect this tombstone so that people will remember and henceforth renounce man-made calamity, darkness and evil.”
Frank Dikötter, the author of Mao’s Great Famine, said the decision to prevent Yang travelling to the US underscored the deteriorating political situation.
“I’m not really surprised in that [over] the last two if not three years there really has been a very chilling effect on historians and more generally anybody who writes critically about the past,” he said.
“That has become very clear in the last year or so. It is very sad,” Dikötter added.
“In a nutshell, it has been made pretty clear by decree that undermining the credibility of the Communist party by querying episodes of the history of the CCP [Chinese Communist party] or questioning some of its leading figures, meaning Chairman Mao, is not desirable.”
Dikötter described Yang’s work on the Great Famine as “essential”. “It will take somebody from China to grind the reputation of Chairman Mao into dust,” he said.