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The Washington Post Obituaries

Liu Binyan Dies; Exiled Chinese Journalist


Author and journalist Liu Binyan, in Washington in 1997, wrote of corruption in his native China in articles that over 20 years led to his placement in labor farms and

Author and journalist Liu Binyan, in Washington in 1997, wrote of corruption in his native China in articles that over 20 years led to his placement in labor farms and "reeducation" facilities. (By Ruth Fremson -- Associated Press)

By Adam Bernstein

Washington Post Staff Writer 
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Liu Binyan, 80, an author who became one of China's celebrated dissidents and whose investigations into corruption prompted his expulsion from the Communist Party and the country itself, died Dec. 5 at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. He had colon cancer.

Mr. Liu had been living in exile in the United States since 1988, most recently in East Windsor, N.J. He was long feted in the United States, where New York Times editor Harrison E. Salisbury once called him "the best investigative reporter in China and possibly in the world."

His boldest book, "People or Monsters?" (1979), was a detailed account of corruption rampant near his native industrial city of Changchun in northeastern China. This capped a long career of infuriating the government with his critical and revelatory stories that appeared in official Communist Party newspapers.

Mr. Liu was self-taught after ninth grade, when limited funds forced him to leave school. His father, who worked for the railroad, spoke Russian and passed on his interest in Russian literature -- including the fiction of Gorki, Tolstoy, Dostoevski and Turgenev.

"From them, I learned the concept of human rights and sympathy for the poor and suffering," Mr. Liu once said. "From them, I also learned what my mission would be as a writer: to struggle for the common people."

After Mao Zedong and the communists were victorious against the U.S.-backed Nationalist government in 1949, Mr. Liu was selected by virtue of his charisma, literary flair and conviction to work on the China Youth Daily. To overcome mundane assignments, he began to show initiative in his articles and practice a form of "literary reportage."

This included a feature about a factory employee punished for suggesting a more productive approach to work. He said he wrote the story to show the error of factory officials, but instead, Mr. Liu himself was criticized for promoting a challenge to authority.

He also published articles detailing corruption at a dam construction site and -- a subject of daily experience -- censorship at a newspaper.

The forthright style of his criticism coincided with Mao's "hundred flowers" campaign to foster more freedom of expression. But in practice, Mr. Liu was denounced as a "rightist" and sent to a labor farm with thousands of others. At the time, he said he did not question the wisdom of the punishment, figuring the fault was indeed within him.

From the late 1950s to late 1970s, Mr. Liu spent several stints in labor or "reeducation" facilities. He was in and out, depending on periodic crackdowns on those viewed as subversive.

His family, which he did not see for years at a time, was forced to denounce him. He carted sewage in cities and made bricks and raised pigs in the countryside. Labor camp officials coerced him to recant his controversial work.

He continued to see himself as a journalist, and the time at the camps gave him the first meaningful contact with those he had long tried to help.

"I had always tried to communicate with workers and peasants when I was traveling on trains to assignment," he once told the Los Angeles Times. "But I always found it very difficult, because we did not speak the same language or have the same interests.

"But after that experience, I learned what the life of the poor people is like, just like the Russian writers I admired. It was the first time I was able to see directly how peasants were living and working in China. I was very surprised, for example, to learn that they often didn't even have cooking oil."

Reinstated as a Communist in the late 1970s, he resumed his newspaper career, at the official People's Daily, and even managed some investigative work. It culminated in "People or Monsters?" His expose of kickbacks and other underhand methods of business could have been set in any region in the country, and thousands of readers sent him letters and made personal visits in the hope he would solve their problems.

There was an expectation that he might use his reputation for fearlessness and incorruptibility to seek public office. However, he shunned the cult of personality that arose amid his book.

If he had grown too popular to send away for further reeducation, he was, in a matter of years, fired from his job and again kicked out of the party on government orders. With the help of Salisbury, who by then was retired, Mr. Liu managed a trip abroad during this period in the late 1980s. Soon after came the Chinese national crackdown on social eruptions, most vividly remembered for the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing.

Mr. Liu saw the event on television and his subsequent public comments were decidedly unwelcome to the Chinese government. Thereafter in mandatory exile, he was greeted as a hero by supporters in the United States.

Perry Link, a Princeton University professor of East Asian studies, wrote in Time magazine about meeting Mr. Liu then: "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 [cents] 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."

After receiving a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University, Mr. Liu briefly was a writer-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He also lectured at Princeton University for most of the 1990s and was involved in the Princeton China Initiative, a research and education organization unaffiliated with the university.

Mr. Liu continued to write about justice and politics in China. He wrote a memoir, "A Higher Kind of Loyalty" (1990), among other books.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Zhu Hong of East Windsor, N.J., whom he called his "guardian angel"; two children, Liu Dahong of Shanghai and Liu Xiaoyan of Beijing; and two grandsons.

Despite everything, Mr. Liu remained a believer in socialist ideals and showed contempt for many of the changes labeled reforms in recent years. He viewed them as little more than methods for the wealthy and powerful to profit at the expense of most others.

Well-connected in China, he sent letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, among other top leaders, asking for permission to return to China as his cancer worsened. He was certain the letters were read, but he never received a reply.


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