Bed bugs, Luo Yu thought when he was awakened by a biting sensation late at night on June 3, 1989. Luo, a colonel and head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Department’s aviation equipment office, turned on the lights, checked the sheets, and found nothing.
The mysterious insect bites and intermittent “ta! ta! ta!” sounds that seemed to issue from the Jianguomen area near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square kept Luo wide awake the rest of the night.
At breakfast, a domestic servant told Luo Yu and his mother that military vehicles were burning in the streets.
It was gunfire I heard in the night, Luo thought to himself. Later that day, before boarding his scheduled flight to Paris for a military exhibition, a state media broadcast confirmed Luo’s suspicion—the PLA had opened fire on the pro-democracy Chinese students and citizens who had occupied Tiananmen Square for about seven weeks.
Luo Yu, now 71, had endured the ravages of the Party on his family during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).
Following the Cultural Revolution, Luo watched in dismay as China opened up economically at the cost of official malfeasance and the Chinese people’s steep moral decline.
He lost all hope in the Party when the Party’s personal military force spilled the blood of Chinese citizens in front of a historic imperial compound on June 4.
Given his revolutionary pedigree, Luo was destined for top military office and rank and could easily have parlayed his heritage into immense illicit personal wealth. Instead, he resigned from the military, renounced the Party, and walked away from China and the public eye in 1990 with barely a whisper.
Nearly two decades later, Luo has returned with potent words: In a best-selling memoir, he recalls his interactions and disillusionment with the upper echelons of Party leadership and offers political counsel in open letters addressed to current Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
Speaking to Xi as a fellow survivor of the Party’s madness and a fellow princeling, Luo calls on his younger contemporary to begin the process of transitioning China to a democracy and to end the Communist Party. Luo supports Xi’s efforts at becoming a genuine strongman—a necessary step for any true reformist to evoke lasting change in communist China—and hopes that Xi eventually rectifies China’s recent human rights tragedies.
Seeds of Doubt
The Luo family was untouched by the Communist Party’s grinding political and economic campaigns until 1966. PLA marshal Lin Biao had convinced Chairman Mao that Luo Yu’s father, then PLA chief of staff Luo Ruiqing, and three other top Party cadres were coup conspirators and had to be purged.
It’s hard to understate Luo Ruiqing’s stature in the establishment mythology of the People’s Republic of China: He took part in the Long March and later helped Mao purge his rivals in the military. After the communists seized power, Mao entrusted Luo with founding the regime’s security system and taking top positions in the armed forces. Mao supposedly once said, “With lanky Luo by my side, if the sky falls, he’d hold it up.”
As first chief of the regime’s dreaded public security ministry, Luo Ruiqing oversaw the building of the labor camp system, had signed off on death warrants to eliminate millions of “counterrevolutionaries”—real or imagined political enemies of the Party.
He was promoted to the highest rank of the PLA for his part in the Korean War, headed the PLA General Staff Department, and later made secretary-general of the Central Military Commission, the Party’s powerful military command body.
The elder Luo’s position and deeds meant nothing to the Red Guards, a revolutionary youth organization that zealously executed the will of Mao from 1966 to 1968. Unable to withstand the onslaught of Red Guard torment, abuse, and ridicule, Luo Ruiqing and his wife attempted suicide. Luo lept out of a three-story building and fractured both his legs, while Hao Zhiping tried to overdose on sleeping pills.
Luo Yu was found guilty by relation and duly punished. In January 1968, central authorities placed Luo, then 24, in jail, and later transferred him to a labor camp. While enduring mistreatment, Luo’s detention stint afforded him a glimpse of how the Party was run on the basis of personal ties.
In his popular memoirs, “Farewell to the PLA General Chief of Staff,” Luo Yu wrote that he had refused to confess to being “anti-Lin Biao” while in captivity. Realizing that something must have happened to Lin, then designated Mao’s successor, when the Party newspapers failed to mention his name for several issues, Luo wrote to the labor camp chief, calling their bluff.
The labor camp chief chuckled upon reading Luo’s letter: “You’re really a character. Back when everyone said you’re ‘anti-Lin Biao,’ you denied it; now when everyone’s ‘anti-Lin Biao,’ you insist you’re not against Lin Biao.”
Luo Yu was released on his birthday, Nov. 18, 1972. Three years later, his disabled and badly abused father was “rehabilitated” by Mao, marking a reversal of his family’s fortunes.
The Rise of Bureacratic Capitalism
China emerged from Mao’s Cultural Revolution forever scarred, and the Chinese people found it virtually impossible to view the Communist Party with rose-tinted glasses.
To regain the support of the people and allow China to recover economically, the Party’s leaders cautiously began economic reform, and with it came official corruption and moral decline.
Luo Yu enjoyed a smooth career progression after rejoining the military in 1977. Following in the footsteps of his father, Luo worked in the General Staff Department and within a decade, was promoted to head of the aviation equipment office and held the rank of colonel.
But Luo couldn’t tolerate the rise of “bureaucratic capitalism”—code for Party officials enriching themselves—particularly in the military. The military was allowed to run businesses, the money from which supplemented a slashed budget—the brainchild of regime paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and overseen by deputy military head Yang Shangkun.
Luo felt that Deng’s policy weakened the PLA as a fighting force and encouraged rampant corruption. He was also disgusted at how his more business-minded colleagues sought only to enrich themselves and regularly indulged in prostitution and other vices.
China as a whole was also rapidly declining morally, Luo told Chinese-language broadcaster New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD) in an exclusive interview. NTD and this newspaper are part of the New York-based Epoch Media Group.
With the advent of Deng’s policy of reform and opening up, Chinese citizens were producing more goods than before, but many of these are counterfeit products, Luo said. “If one goes to a food market in China, one needs to check if the vegetables and rice are real.”
“The Party doesn’t have morals or belief, and they set a bad example for the citizens,” he said. “Because the Communist Party doesn’t abide by the constitution, citizens also learn not to follow the constitution. When officials turn corrupt, citizens will find ways to become worse than those officials.”
Deng’s bureaucratic capitalism was the genesis of official malfeasance, and the blind pursuit of material wealth through corruption was entrenched and expanded throughout the entire Chinese society by Jiang Zemin.
“If you’re not corrupt, what can you do?” he asked.
So Luo was heartened to hear that college students had started to occupy the historic Tiananmen Square on April 17 to commemorate the death of Hu Yaobang, a reform-minded former Party leader, and later, to make demands for a cleaner government and democracy.
June 4 and Defection
The students and sympathetic citizens of Beijing could not have chosen a more opportune time to tilt at the Communist Party.
In May, then Soviet Union general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to town for a state visit, and the world’s media were present to give the budding pro-democracy student protest maximum coverage.
A million people marched in Beijing. While then Chinese premier Li Peng met with student representatives, others collapsed from an ongoing hunger strike in the square. Martial law was declared, and the anguished Party leader Zhao Ziyang personally made an impassioned, last-ditch plea for the students to leave the vicinity for their safety.
Luo Yu lost all faith in the Communist Party after learning that the tanks and armored vehicles stationed on the outskirts of Beijing had entered Tiananmen and quite literally crushed the protesters. Turning guns on students is “something that cannot be tolerated,” Luo told NTD.
“Before June 4, I only had differences with Deng and Yang,” Luo wrote in his memoir. “After June 4, I could no longer be associated with them.”
Returning from Paris, Luo exploited an incident with abrasive colleagues to tender his formal resignation—because Luo’s position in the General Staff Department was highly coveted, quitting without reason could lead to arrest and even jail time. It took Luo three months to urge superiors to sign off on his resignation and another six months before he was expelled from the Party for not paying membership fees.
Then Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin didn’t allow Luo a quiet retreat, however. In 1992, after learning that Luo had defected, Jiang issued a personal order decreeing the expulsion of Luo from the military and the Party—a petty gesture that served only to underline the split between the Luo family and the ruling regime, Luo noted in his memoir.
For the next 20 years, Luo Yu became a private individual and led a private life.
In 1990, he had secretly married Tina Leung Kwok-hing, a famous Hong Kong film actress turned businesswoman. The couple lived in Hong Kong, Portugal, and the United States and enjoyed traveling around the world in each other’s company.
After Leung succumbed to cancer in 2010, Luo moved to the United States. Today, he lives modestly in a rental apartment on the outskirts of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
In 2015, Jin Zhong, a prominent publisher and chief editor of a political magazine, got Luo back in the game by publishing his memoir.
Jin Zhong, the founder of Open Magazine, learned through mutual friends in Beijing that Luo Yu was sitting on a manuscript.
“When I met him, I thought he was a very sincere person,” Jin said in a telephone interview from New York City, his new home after relocating from Hong Kong this year. “He came up as a soldier, not an author, but what he writes gives people a sense of authenticity. I think that’s the most precious thing about his memoir.”
Publishing Luo Yu’s memoir was a no-brainer for Jin.
“No one in the first generation of the Party leadership has written a memoir like that. So he’s creating a precedent—that is very intriguing,” Jin said. Luo’s marriage to a household celebrity also convinced Jin the manuscript would be a hot ticket.
His instincts proved accurate: The memoir was one of the best-selling “banned books” in Hong Kong last year, according to Ming Pao, and it’s now in its sixth print run, Jin says. The memoir also greatly boosted his public profile, Jin said. “Journalists started contacting him to hear his opinions on current developments.”
Writing for the Future of China
Luo too recognizes that now is an opportune time to make his voice heard.
Whatever Luo clatters out on his computer within the confines of his Harrisburg apartment is instantly broadcast in the age of the Internet to an audience of millions. Even those living in China can hear about Luo’s political musings and exhortations to Party leader Xi Jinping if they circumvent the Great Firewall of China.
Luo has become a prolific commentator in recent months: Apple Daily, the Hong Kong-based tabloid, has published eight of Luo’s open letters to Xi, and Luo is frequently interviewed by overseas Chinese media.
“I think there’s a stronger chance that Xi Jinping will read it, after that,” Luo told the Epoch Times. “If it made no impact, then he may not have paid any attention to it.”
Luo thinks that Xi will listen to his counsel and thoughts on the account of their family backgrounds and political inclinations.
First, there’s the personal connection.There’s also a similar history of being shaped by the crucible of Party persecution. Like Luo Ruiqing, Xi Zhongxun was a respected revolutionary and loyal Mao supporter until he was denounced, purged, and imprisoned in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. A teenage Xi Jinping was also banished to a village in his native Shaanxi Province, where he was made to work the land and lived in a cave.
When the elder Xi emerged from jail, he became “a classic member of the Party’s more enlightened wing, or democracy faction,” said Luo.
Ironically, Jiang Zemin had picked Xi Jinping to succeed Hu Jintao as Party leader precisely because he didn’t seem like a threat and appeared easy to control. Luo thinks that this remarkable “accident” of history is likely to bring about historic change.
“In China, it’s not the formal position that one occupies that determines their level of power,” Luo said. Since Mao’s time, Party leaders or would-be successors of Party leaders are hardly ever secure until their predecessor dies and they’ve eliminated their rivals and built up a strong enough political network to ensure that their will is carried out.
Luo Yu has been watching the endeavors of his contemporary with great interest and has been hoping and calling for Xi to eradicate the old, ossified power base by purging Jiang and his allies—a necessary step for any reform-minded leader to take.
Previously, relatively liberal Party leaders like the late Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang were helpless to push through substantial reform because paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was alive and had a solid retinue of supporters. Eventually, both leaders were sidelined by Deng.
But Xi appears to have greatly weakened Jiang Zemin’s clique over the past three years, and given a scenario where there is no power behind the throne, “progress is possible” in China, Luo said.
Luo hopes that Xi can follow in the footsteps of Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Nationalist Party strongman Chiang Kai-shek, who in the 1980s gathered supreme authority in Taiwan before ending one-party dictatorship.
“That’s why I want to consult with Xi Jinping as someone from my own generation,” Luo said. “I want to tell him my thoughts. However much he can accept, then that’s a matter of how blessed he is, and how blessed China is. I’m just telling him my thoughts.”
When probed about the current climate of intense criticism, including blame for Xi Jinping, Luo Yu attributed most of it to the nature of the dictatorship itself. “It’s Zhou Yongkang’s security system without Zhou Yongkang in it,” he said.
Luo hopes Xi Jinping is “telling a lifetime of lies in order to speak a sentence of truth” once he has consolidated his position.
“I’ve never imagined that Xi Jinping would take the top position, so now I’m feeling hopeful about him,” Luo told NTD. “One-party rule cannot continue, and in his current position, he has the means of democratizing China.”
Xi Jinping, however, will eventually face a choice between saving the Communist Party or saving China, Luo said. China today is beset by “environmental crisis, a crisis of faith, a crisis of morality, financial crisis. …” “There are crises everywhere.”
“You can’t have both. … I’m telling him, there’s only one way—it’s not like you can do it anyway you like—and the only way is democracy.”
History, Luo Yu mused, will judge the Communist Party and its leaders harshly for the massacre on June 4.
“The feudal, Deng Xiaoping, bureaucratic capitalistic regime finally shed its mask of pretense about serving the people and openly declared that they stood in opposition to the people,” Luo said in a telephone interview.
“They’re capable of unleashing machine guns and tanks on their own people. … Deng’s regime is fundamentally opposed to humanity.” But if China democratizes, June 4 will be recognized as a “tragic, but glorious, enlightenment of the masses,” Luo said.
“In order to oppose bureaucratic capitalism, the Chinese people, on June 4, 1989, embarked on this impressive movement, and they made an enormous sacrifice,” he said.
Matthew Robertson contributed to this report.