The family of jailed Chinese dissident Yang Tongyan has applied for medical parole on his behalf after a tumour was discovered in his brain, his sister has said.

Yang, who is also known by his pen name Yang Tianshui, is serving a 12-year prison sentence for “subversion of state power.” He is known for writings critical of the Chinese government, and was also jailed from 1990 to 2000 for his involvement in China’s 1989 pro-democracy protests.

His family was notified by the Nanjing Prison on Saturday that a tumour had been discovered in the 56-year-old’s brain and that his condition was serious, according to his sister. The authorities told them to apply for medical parole.

yang tongyan
Yang Tongyan. Photo: CPPC.

Yang’s family previously applied for medical parole in 2010 and 2012, as he suffers from various illnesses including tuberculosis, diabetes, and nephritis. He was due to be released at the end of this year.

Yang’s condition has drawn comparisons to Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last month in a hospital under police custody after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer at the end of May.

Yang’s nephew and brother-in-law have applied for his release, and Yang may be released from the prison on Tuesday, his sister told US-backed Voice of America on Sunday.

But prison authorities told the family that Yang will not be able to leave the country for treatment.

“[They] said he is a criminal, so he does not have the right to leave the country for treatment,” Yang’s sister said.

Hu Ping, a political commentator and editor of the New York-based pro-democracy journal Beijing Spring, told US-backed Radio Free Asia: “He was supposed to be released in December this year, but the authorities are now giving him medical parole four months early – this means that his illness is very dangerous, and they don’t want him to die in prison in order to avoid being held responsible by public opinion and the international community.”

Liu Xiaobo
Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last month. Photo: FactWire screenshot.

Hu said that, like Liu Xiaobo, Yang was only granted medical parole when he was critically ill. He also questioned why Liu and Yang’s cancers were not discovered in time.

“Political prisoners like Yang Shuitian… must have suffered many kinds of torment in prison – people cannot help but ask: are the Beijing authorities trying to kill these people?”

In 2008, Yang was awarded PEN America’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, which honours literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.