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Liu Binyan

Fearless and incorruptible, China's conscience speaks the truth

Perry Link (Time Magazine, 4/28/2003)


When Liu Binyan joined the underground Communist Party of China in the 1940s, it could have cost him his life. Neither the Japanese occupiers nor the nationalist Chinese government, then locked in struggle for control of the country, had any use for communists. After 1949, when Party membership suddenly turned from a dangerous liability into the first rung on a new ladder to success, millions rushed to sign up while Liu, who had dared to criticize the Party, was expelled. Over the next four decades, its leaders successively denounced him, sent him to the mountains, split him from his family, "re-educated" him, "pardoned" him, readmitted him, redenounced him, re-expelled him and finally forced him into permanent exile.

This might have left him dizzy and disoriented. But for Liu, nearly the opposite has been true. Somewhere early in his life a set of values—learning, truth telling and sympathy for the downtrodden—took deep root and would not budge. His stubborn adherence to these ideals not only survived all the chaos in his life but usually was precisely what caused it—and what, at the same time, made him one of China's foremost writers.

Liu was born in 1925, the son of a railroad worker in the northeastern industrial city of Changchun. His family could afford schooling for him only through to ninth grade, but that was enough to ignite a lifelong passion for books. On leaving school, Liu joined a communist reading group, taught himself Russian, read Marx, and from then on never doubted either his ideals of social justice or his faith that words are wonderfully powerful tools. The forward-looking spirit of China's revolution in the early 1950s suited him perfectly. He worked as an editor, investigative reporter and Party secretary of the China Youth News, the leading newspaper for young people in the new People's Republic. Smart, eloquent, energetic, and blessed with a sonorous voice and uncommon good looks, he seemed headed for a brilliant career.

In 1956 he published two works of thinly disguised fiction—one exposing corruption at a construction site, and the other showing how censorship works at a newspaper. When the Party responded by denouncing and expelling him, his first reaction was to blame himself. After all, how could Chairman Mao be wrong? But after living for a few months in banishment in a barren, mountain village, Liu reluctantly concluded there were "two kinds of truth" in China: the theoretical "truths" that filter down from Party central; and the actual truths of daily life for impoverished citizens. He never regained his faith in organized Chinese communism.

In the 1960s Liu reassumed his job at the China Youth News but soon fell out of favor again. In 1969, at the crest of Mao's Cultural Revolution, Liu, still officially viewed as a "rightist," was sent to a labor camp for eight years. In 1978, with the onset of "reform and opening," he was "exonerated" and given a position as a special reporter for the People's Daily, where he resumed his critical writing without breaking stride. He published People or Monsters?, a meticulously researched, analytically powerful exposé of corruption in one county in the northeastern Heilongjiang province—this work would usher in the heyday of Liu's literary career.

Liu's thunderbolt had resounded across the country. "You are China's conscience," wrote one reader to him. Another proclaimed, "As long as your writing is in print, we know China has hope." For the next few years Liu was the mainland's most admired writer. Thousands viewed him as a sort of court of appeal, and brought their personal grievances to him. Liu might easily have parlayed such prestige into high official position. Instead, he wrote a long article about "a second kind of loyalty," suggesting there are higher values than routine obedience to authority.

Once again, the top leaders had enough. Liu was criticized, expelled and barred from publishing. In the spring of 1988, he and Zhu Hong—his saintly wife and diligent assistant in all matters—arrived in the U.S. for a short visit that was destined, because of the Tiananmen massacre a year later, to turn into permanent exile. I was teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, at the time and had hosted many distinguished Chinese visitors. Liu was the only one of my guests who showed no interest in Disneyland. For days, his favorite hangout was a used-book store run by the Salvation Army. Already self-taught in English as well as Russian, he bought piles of paperbacks for 25¢ apiece and read them until 3 a.m., night after night, devouring everything from the musings of Malcolm X to analyses of Eastern European socialism.

In the 1990s, while many Chinese cheered "reform," Liu did not. Much of the reform process, he argued, has been a way for the élite to profiteer by trading on its political power. Social justice was still his issue. Why is there such a gap between rich and poor? What about the millions of laid-off workers? The tens of millions of farmers driven from their land by unbearable taxation? The moral bankruptcy that pervades public life? In 2001, looking back on his own life, Liu asked the most penetrating question of all: Is China today the nation that we, its citizens, hoped and strived for 60 years ago, when the revolution began? And did we envision a China where corruption, deception, and cynicism are rife? Where exploitation, disease, prostitution and gangsterism have their ways? Where the rural suicide rate is highest in the world? Where the "smart" people have no moral values? Where the natural environment might never recover? Ruled by a regime that still will not look squarely at the millions of untimely deaths it caused in the Great Leap famine, and that still represses any voice that speaks—or even might speak—against it? For China's ultimate crusader, all these questions answer themselves.

Today, Liu lives in East Windsor, New Jersey, where he is recovering from an operation for colon cancer. He writes for the Hong Kong press about justice and politics in China, and broadcasts to China on Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded service. Beijing continues to bar him from returning to his homeland and has had some success in killing his reputation inside China, where few people younger than 30 now recognize his name. But to the Chinese thinking public of the middle and older generations, Liu Binyan, even in enforced silence, stands as a stake in the ground: truth does count, justice does matter, and decent public life is possible.



刘宾雁小传 | 刘宾雁自传 | 中国良心(英) | 悼念刘宾雁 | 纪念刘宾雁 | 刘宾雁归葬

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