Liu Binyan was rare person in China. For four decades, China's most famous journalist held on to high moral principles. Just about everyone else in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had long abandoned trying to help the workers and peasants, and instead thought almost exclusively in making a comfortable life for oneself at the expense of others. His belief in social justice never wavered or weakened during his life, and in fact, was his guiding ideal.
His life was an on-going battle with the CCP and its corrupting influence. His struggle came to a close when he succumbed to colon cancer and died last month, on December 5th in East Windsor, New Jersey.
He held a dim view of the economic reforms leading to the hot economy of the 80s and 90s. Liu said, “The economy soared, but public morality degenerated, or you can say the soul of society was lost.”
He also was not enamored with the new leadership of Hu Jin Tao and Wen Jiabao, who wouldn't allow him to return to China. His work always noted that the continual use of persecution had not abated despite the economic development and changes in Party leadership. “People thought Hu and Wen were much better than [former president] Jiang Zemin, and that China would be very different politically. But now things are even worse than before,” Liu told Radio Free Asia in an interview to mark his 80th birthday.
Liu was born in 1925, the son of a railroad worker in the northeastern industrial city of Changchun. Despite having to quit school in the ninth grade, Liu had a strong appetite for learning and books, traits not encouraged by the CCP. As an investigative journalist, his job would inevitably bring him into conflict with the CCP. The odd fact of his life is that he joined the Communist Party in 1944, which back then was a risky thing to do. He had been converted to Marxism with the idea that this form of government would help improve the lives of the downtrodden. He began his career in 1949 as a journalist for the China Youth News. In 1957, Liu was denounced as a Rightist upon writing two works exposing the corruption of a construction site and how censorship was inflicted on a newspaper.
For practicing his ideals, he was expelled from the Party and banished to a barren mountain village. His first inclination was to look inward and blame himself. However, after some reflection he concluded that Chairman Mao was not infallible. According to his friend and colleague, Perry Link, “He never regained his faith in organized Chinese communism.” Liu was in and out of work camps for the next 21 years.
He was “rehabilitated” and resumed his work in the 1960s; subsequently, he was again found guilty at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1969 and sent to a labor camp for eight years. Following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution era, a new openness emerged, he was “exonerated” and resumed his profession in 1978, publishing a landmark work, “People or Monsters?”, which, according to his friend, Perry Link, “was meticulously researched, analytically powerful exposé of corruption in one county.” Link observed, “For the next few years Liu was the mainland's most admired writer.” The Washington Post referred to him as, “China's best-known journalist and a symbol of moral integrity for many of the country's university students.” Once again his popularity and writings were not to the Party's liking, and Liu was expelled and barred from further publishing.
He was in America, as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, what was intended to be a short stay, when the students were massacred at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Working with two colleagues who were on the scene, he immediately wrote a book, entitled, “Tell the World,” and completed it by August while the event was still fresh on people's minds. This is the first look that the rest of the world got of what really happened at Tiananmen Square. As a result, the Chinese regime barred Liu from returning to his homeland, and he spent the remainder of his life, 16 years, in exile.
Liu stated that more than 3,000 were killed on June 4th and that agrees with the rough guesstimates of others. He reported, “From June 4 to the beginning of August, 120,000 people who were involved with the movement were thrown into prison. And 20,000 were imprisoned in Beijing alone.” It's a sad commentary of this regime, that students who participated at Tiananmen are still being held after 16 years for advocating democracy. He saw clearly that not only did a tragedy occur, but democracy in China was given a huge setback. In an interview, June 1999, by Human Rights Watch (HRW), he asserted, “The massacre and the ensuing large-scale arrests and purging resulted in the annihilation of the democratic forces, and the fruits achieved through the years of struggle to gain freedom in some fields were all gone.”
Liu believed that Communism was being reformed from within. However, with the recent publication of the “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” by The Epoch Times, that view is no longer tenable for many people who, like Liu, would like to see a China respect human rights and democratic principles.
In the HRW interview, Liu was asked, “Where has the June 4 movement left you personally?” He responded, “In 1989 and the ensuing period, I was too optimistic about the situation in China. I've never thought that the temptation of money and goods could have such an impact on Chinese people. I had also placed too high hopes on intellectuals and the reformist forces within the Party.”
Finally, we get some insight into Liu's perception of the social consequences of China's boom economy from a review that he and Perry Link wrote for the New York Review of Books, October 18, 1998, on He Qinglian's book, “China's Pitfall”:
The word “slaughter” (zai), which corresponds in both sense and tone to “rip off” in American English, is now widely used [to describe the 1990s]. Few people in the outside world appreciate how pervasive the attitude and practice of zai have become in China. Probably in no other society today has economic good faith been compromised to the extent it has in China. Contracts are not kept; debts are ignored, whether between individuals or between state enterprises; individuals, families, and sometimes whole towns have gotten rich on deceitful schemes.
Liu agrees with Ms. He that the overall situation is unprecedented. Quoting He, “The championing of money as a value, has never before reached the point of holding all moral rules in such contempt.” Liu was convinced that the most dramatic change in modern China is “the collapse of ethics—not growth of the economy.”