Liu Binyan

Exiled Chinese dissident


Liu Binyan, journalist: born Changchun, China 15 January 1925; married 1951 Zhu Hong (one son, one daughter); died New Brunswick, New Jersey 5 December 2005.

For a brief, glorious period in the early Eighties, Liu Binyan was the most prominent Chinese journalist. His exposés of the corruption and censorship that he came to regard as inherent within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led to his being hailed as "China's conscience" and were all the more remarkable in that they appeared in the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP.

Despite being a fervent Marxist in his youth, Liu had the distinction of being expelled from the CCP by both Mao Zedong and his successor, Deng Xiaoping. But even though he was prevented from working as a journalist from 1957 to 1979, and spent the last 17 years of his life as an unwilling exile in the United States, Liu never ceased advocating social justice for the workers and peasants who he believed had been betrayed by the same CCP that had used them to attain power.

The son of a railway worker, Liu was born in the city of Changchun in 1925. As a child, he witnessed the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria and had to attend school in a Japanese-style military uniform. His formal education ended at 15, but Liu studied Marx on his own and taught himself to read English, Russian and Japanese.

In an interview in the US in 1990, the year he published A Higher Kind of Loyalty, the English translation of his autobiography Liu Pin-yen tzu chuan (1989), Liu claimed it was through reading the great Russian writers, Gorki, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev, that he discovered his vocation. "From them I learned the concept of human rights. I also learned what my mission would be as a writer: to struggle for the common people," said Liu. He joined the CCP in 1944, when it was still an underground organisation faced with the twin threats of the Nationalists and the Japanese army. He became an activist in the CCP's land reform programme, but after the Communists took power in 1949 he joined the newspaper China Youth News. He embarked on a supremely happy marriage with fellow journalist Zhu Hong.

Liu first came to wider prominence in 1956, when he published two semi-fictional critiques of the CCP; the first article, about a bridge construction site, contrasted the idealism of a young engineer with the rule-bound officials he had to answer to, while the other attacked the way journalists were prevented from reporting anything perceived as negative to the CCP.

Within a year, Liu had been denounced by his newspaper, labelled a "rightist" by Mao and sent to the country to be reformed through labour. Briefly rehabilitated in 1966, Liu was denounced again and from 1969 to 1977 was incarcerated in a labour camp. Remarkably, he was rehabilitated again and re-emerged in 1979 as a writer on the People's Daily.

Allowed to work on long pieces that were part essays and part reportage, Liu responded with his finest work. His most famous story, "Jen-yao chih chien" ("People and Monsters", the title piece of People or Monsters: and other stories and reportage from China after Mao, 1983), is a devastating account of the rise and fall of a corrupt local official during the Cultural Revolution. But it was the publication of an article in 1985, "Di'erhzhong zhongcheng" ("A Second Kind of Loyalty"), in which Liu said that party members should put their faith in their consciences and not the party, that was the most controversial. Liu was the first writer to question the notion of unbending loyalty to the party.

His time in the spotlight in China came to an end in January 1987, when Deng Xiaoping singled him out for advocating "bourgeois liberalism" and expelled him from the party. In 1988, Liu left China for a temporary teaching position at Harvard. He became a passionate supporter of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In the aftermath of the crackdown on the protesters on 4 June 1989, the Chinese authorities barred him from returning to his homeland. Liu made repeated requests to be allowed back, but he had become a non-person in the eyes of the Chinese leadership.

Liu spent his time in exile teaching at Harvard and then Princeton, while contributing articles to Hong Kong newspapers and broadcasting on Radio Free Asia. He continued to attack the CCP for what he saw as their neglect of the masses and derided the reforms of the 1990s as benefiting only the party elite.

David Eimer

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