Chinese ‘Patriotic’ Speaker Ruined His Career in United States

By Jenny Yang
Jenny Yang
Jenny Yang
April 8, 2013 Updated: December 15, 2013

The extreme highs and lows of a life at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party are well-illustrated by the case of Qu Xiao, who was one of the most successful oral agitators in China since the Party took power in 1949. From the depths of despair during the Cultural Revolution, Qu went from being an imprisoned counterrevolutionary after his father was run over by a Soviet military truck, to a propaganda pusher and household name in the 1980s, back to an ailing nobody in 1991, when he mistakenly revealed the cruelty of the regime during a propaganda tour designed for Chinese students in the United States.

After the Cultural Revolution ended, Qu became a public speaker and frequently gave speeches on the theme “Love the Party, love the country”. The authorities recognized his ability, and he was invited by many universities to speak to students. Though a well-known figure in China, he was mostly unheard of by Chinese students studying abroad in the United States. So the communist regime sent him on a tour of U.S. universities to “educate” Chinese students there and strengthen their “patriotic passion” for the CCP.

But Qu terminated his tour prematurely, returning to China after his first U.S. speech, and later had a nervous breakdown. He suffered a stroke, and remained bedridden for over 10 years until his death. Nobody in China knew what had happened during his trip to the United States, but two years ago, a well-known Chinese blogger named Yan Runtao admitted that he had witnessed Qu’s first speech, and felt it was his responsibility to demystify the “Qu Xiao incident.” 

Yan was studying in the United States at that time, but had left China before Qu became famous. Knowing that Yan was a good dumpling cook, one day in 1991 the head of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student group that is affiliated with the local Chinese consulate, asked Yan to host two guests from China. These two visitors were Qu Xiao and Liu Zhonghai, a government employee from China’s Foreign Ministry. 

On the morning of the second day, Yan drove the two men to the venue for Qu’s first speech, and sat in the audience.

“Out of a few hundred Chinese international students, only about 30 people went, for two reasons,” Yan wrote in his article. “First, although Qu Xiao was famous inside China, very few overseas Chinese knew who he was. Another reason was that most of the students were tired of decades of political preaching and weren’t enthusiastic about the prospect of more.”

However, among the small audience were two pro-regime professors. Both were Taiwanese, and both had studied in the United States and earned their doctorates there. As they hated the Kuomintang–Taiwan’s Nationalist Party established by Chiang Kai-shek–and passionately supported the Chinese Communist Party, they did not participate in the Taiwan Association at their university, but instead were involved in activities organized by mainland Chinese students and scholars. One of them was a well-known professor in contemporary history, Wong Young-tsu.

Qu Xiao’s speech was engaging. He began with the words, “I also had the same opportunity to study abroad when I was your age, although I could only go to the Soviet Union. Yet I was labeled a rightist and thrown into jail instead.” These words immediately captivated the audience.

According to Yan, Qu was unquestionably talented as a public speaker; his voice was sometimes loud, sometimes gentle, sometimes indignant, and sometimes sorrowful.

The speech reached a climax when he described how he was short of just 200 yuan (US$32) to pay for his partner’s medical bill, and she later passed away. This was quickly followed by another emotional story: He was sent to be “re-educated” as a farm laborer, and a local peasant girl gave him flatbread while he was on the verge of starvation, so he later married her. When his father was run over by a Soviet military truck, he not only received no compensation, but was charged as a counter-revolutionary, because local Party officials thought this would make him resent Russia, and being anti-Soviet was equivalent to being anti-communist. So they sent him to prison for 22 years.

The majority of the Chinese students present felt that while Qu’s story was heartbreaking, it was still less tragic than the fates of the landowners, rich people, counterrevolutionaries, and rightists, many of whom had been tortured and beaten to death. The only effect the speech had on them was simply to convince them that Qu was a very good public speaker. 

Qu concluded his story with then Party-chairman Hu Yaobang’s redressal of the unjust and false charges made against the victims of the Cultural Revolution, when he was finally rehabilitated. Everybody thought that his speech was going to end at this point, when Qu said: “But, the Party is our mother. A child will not and should not bear grudges against his mother, even if she has wrongfully beaten him!”

Now, understanding the purpose behind Qu’s speaking tour, Yan Runtao, the student, turned to look at Liu Zhonghai, the Chinese official, and saw him carefully observing the students’ expressions.

At this point, Wong Young-tsu, one of the two professors in the audience, raised his hand to speak. The audience thought that he was going to talk, as he always did, about how autocratic and ruthless Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang were.

However, Wong’s face was red with anger, and he said, “In the past, I had always thought that Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang were deceiving the people of Taiwan when they told us how dictatorial, bloody, and cruel the CCP and Mao Zedong were toward dissidents. Until now, I had always believed the Kuomintang’s propaganda to be lies, whereas I truly believed the Party’s newspapers, just because their reports were the opposite of the Kuomintang’s. But today, professor Qu’s speech was like a damning confession, with blood and tragedy in every line. A young scholar was thrown in prison for 22 years for no reason at all. I had seen similar reports when I was in Taiwan, but none were as evil and outrageous as this!”

As Liu realized the effect of Qu’s words, his face went pale with regret and panic. He tried to silence Wong, but the professor would have none of it. He pressed on, angrily: “You said the Party was your mother. But how could you still call her a mother after she abused her children like this for such a long time? Even a stepmother wouldn’t be so cruel. Does she still have the right to demand loyalty from a child maltreated by her? In any civilized country, a mother who abuses her child like this would be punished by the law.”

In his essay, Yan Runtao wrote: “I was truly shocked at how furious professor Wong was. As a historian, how could he have been so ignorant? I later reasoned that he must have been blinded by his own prejudice. There is a saying: ‘Prejudice places one further from the truth than ignorance.’ This is very true.” 

The president of the Chinese student association saw that the situation was getting out of control, and cut Wong off by announcing that the meeting was adjourned.

Yan drove his two guests back to their hotel room. After locking the door behind him, Liu said, “I think that professor Qu Xiao’s speaking tour cannot continue. Nobody could have predicted the outcome of today’s speech, but it’s not entirely surprising. I was thinking about it on our way back; even in China there might be many who share the same opinion as Wong Young-tsu, except that none of them have dared to speak out. So, professor Qu’s speech is like a double-edge sword, and it’s very hard to predict whether it will end up being beneficial or detrimental. ”

Qu stared blankly at Liu without saying a word. He was clearly anguished: His speaking career was over, and he knew that he was of no further use to the communist regime.

Liu asked Yan about the procedures for changing airline tickets. He explained that the speaking tour might be terminated, so they would have to cancel all their subsequent domestic flights.

After returning to China Qu Xiao seldom appeared in public. In the middle of a speech in Nantong City in 1991, he had a stroke and fell from the podium. Half of his body was paralyzed, and he lost the ability to speak. His wife, whom he had married after she gave him flatbread to save him from starvation, cared for him for the following 12 years, until 2003, when he died.

Read the original Chinese article.

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Jenny Yang
Jenny Yang