For decades Liu Binyan, China’s most celebrated journalist, sought to expose corruption in the Communist Party and injustice in China; he was often censored for it. His ashes were returned to China, but his message from beyond the grave will be censored too.
The epitaph he had written for himself was simple: “The Chinese man here entombed once did what he should have done, said what he himself should have said.” Party censors did not approve, and the inscription on his tomb at the Tianshan Cemetery in Beijing on Dec. 23 was not allowed to proceed.
Liu died in 2005 after 16 years of exile in the United States. In 1988 Liu had come to visit the United States, but the authorities would not allow him to return after his open condemnation of the 1989 massacre of students in Beijing. Before he died he had attempted to return to China for his final days, but was refused.
A crowd of close to one hundred, many former colleagues from China Youth Daily and People’s Daily, both newspapers where Liu had carved out a reputation, came to pay their respects and leave flowers, according to Apple Daily. The weeping of mourners was accompanied by no dirge and no memorial speeches, but only the sounds of swallows and the northern wind rushing through the mountains, the article said.
Counterposing the sadness for Liu’s passing were sentiments of acute disgust at the authorities’ final treatment of him.
China Youth Daily reporter Lu Yuegang, in a quote available online, said of it: “Liu Binyan is the conscience of China’s press and intellectuals, he is a giant who singlehandedly carried China’s tradition of reportage. The authorities not only shut up his voice, but refused his wish to return to his homeland in his dying years. Now that his ashes are returned to China, they use all manner of excuses to make it almost impossible to carry out a burial. It’s truly inhuman.”
Chief Editor of Beijing Spring, a flagship dissident journal in the United States, Hu Ping, said: “It is utterly ridiculous. He so loved his country his whole life, and did so many things for his country and people—for which he paid such a price—and five years after his death they do not even allow him to have his own words on his tombstone? It’s just excessive.”
Liu was born in 1925 in Jilin Province, in China’s northeast. He became a journalist at the Party newspaper China Youth Daily in 1951. In 1957 he was branded a “rightist” for the “poisonous weeds” he had published about corruption in the Party; politically “rehabilitated” just over two decades later, he gained a position with the People’s Daily and renewed his quest for the truth. That led to the 1979 publication of “People or Monsters?” a penetrating piece of reportage (fictionalized journalism with a dash of analysis) on the iniquities of communist rule, seen at the time as both scandalous and undeniably apposite.
After a career as a journalist characterized by unusual integrity, Liu became vice-chairman of the Chinese Writer’s Association in 1985 and the first president of the Chinese Independent Pen Center.
In 1987 Deng Xiaoping, as part of a political campaign cracking down on “bourgeois liberalization,” said Liu was an opponent of the socialist system, an opponent of the Chinese Communist Party. His Party membership was revoked and he lost his job. The following year Liu went to the United States.
Liu was the archetype of the Chinese intellectual. In a foreword to Perry Link’s “Evening Chats in Beijing,” he writes: “Chinese intellectuals have stood at the vortex of the swirling currents of their natural history. They have taken on the heavy burden of responsibility for their nation’s destiny and, for every step of progress their country has made, have paid prices and accepted sacrifices far in excess of what is normal for intellectuals in most other countries. Their dedication has been especially evident during the forty-two years of Communist rule in the People’s Republic.”