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Liu Binyan has died - His spirit drives us still
John Patrick Kusumi
He was a journalist for the People's Daily, a leading Chinese newspaper, in the 1970s and 80s. He became famous for tearing into corruption as he would find in the Chinese Communist Party at its various levels. By the end of the 1980s, that fame was international, and he was hailed by the Washington Post (saying, "China's best-known journalist and a symbol of moral integrity for many of the country's university students"), the Los Angeles Times (saying, "The most provocative and influential Chinese writer today"), and Publisher's Weekly (saying, "China's best-known and most revered investigative journalist") -- all influential organs of Western journalism.
The death of an upright man, Hu Yaobang, once caused mourners to flood into Tiananmen Square. The death of Liu Binyan is an occasion that makes this writer want to go to public commemorations of him. The jolt of his passing is similar to that as was felt earlier this year, when Zhao Ziyang died after 16 years of house arrest. (Zhao was the Communist Party chief who came out on the short end of a power struggle. He was sacked after expressing sympathy for the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.) We can revive a saying from Beijing's spring of 1989 -- "The one who should not die, died. Those who should die live."
How would Americans most likely remember Liu Binyan? He is the author of "Tell the World," a book about the Tiananmen Square uprising and bloody crackdown, that was the first such book available in English -- a work dated August, 1989. The good journalist that he was, he authored this 185 page book at a time when the wounds (and memories) were still fresh. He was a journalist who didn't hesitate to tell us that "More than three thousand people were killed in Tiananmen Square and on the streets of Beijing." He also 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."
The title of his book comes directly from the entreaty of a student in Tiananmen Square on that fateful day, June 4, 1989: "You must tell the world what is happening. Otherwise all this counts for nothing." The first part of his book concludes, "The world must not forget China, China in the spring of 1989. If executioners like Li Peng and the Gang of the Old are not punished, how can humanity have a moment of peace?"
In 1987, China's then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping denounced Liu as a threat to the party. When the "June 4" uprising happened, Liu was already in the United States. He had come to Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow in the fall of 1988, and he relied upon two co-authors in compiling his book (of whom one, Xu Gang, stayed in Tiananmen Square until the bitter end). In the aftermath of that crackdown, Liu was an exile -- unable to return to his homeland. The fact that his death occurred in exile (in New Jersey at the age of 80) is to the lasting shame of the Chinese regime that would not allow him to return home.
It may seem incongruous that Liu's roots were as a Marxist and socialist. He joined the Communist Party before it rose to political power in China, suggesting that he was a committed revolutionary. The later course of his career reflects "how corruption and greed had eaten away at the system, and...how the Chinese party had strayed from socialism and the ideals he had read about as a youth," in words of the New York Times. Liu said, in an interview with the New York Review of Books, "The problem does not lie with socialism itself. The socialism imported from the Soviet Union and implemented in China was not true socialism. From Stalin to Mao Zedong, we have had false socialism." Hence, his discontent was not with Marxist theories, but rather with outcomes on the ground -- actual results of the actual party implementation of government. Whether one reckons by standards of human rights, actual outcomes, or Marxist principles, the party is a miserable failure.
Most intellectuals these days are finished with Marxism, understanding that it has passed into history as a theory that fails when applied by actual people in actual practice. Having moved into the 21st century, the world has changed and moved along.
What will be lasting about Liu's legacy is that he had the courage to dissent from the CCP, and to do so openly in the practice of journalism. Western journalists in the 1990s adjusted their tune, leading to their "eyes wide shut" attitude about abuses in Chinese government. The Westerners provide us with profiles in cowardice (profiles in selling out?), while Liu Binyan presents a profile in courage. And further, Liu provides the urging, the blandishment, or the anthem to "Tell the World." China continues to have outrageous abuses and atrocities committed against its own people. China continues to have corruption and political calculus based in greed. History books will readily reveal that China has had numerous episodes of killing, such as the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the Falun Gong crackdown (sometimes also known as the pre-Olympic crackdown). The latter crackdown has already been a six-year episode that has claimed thousands of lives; it will be vividly visible in the history books, but seemingly not in Western news coverage of China, where they would sooner show you glittering skyscrapers, modern factory floors, and Fortune 500 logos.
In the past 55 years, if China was merely hit by a tsunami, it would have killed fewer people than the Communist Party. History's largest humanitarian disaster has been the reign of the CCP in China. This is literally true, where the death toll in China has surpassed the death toll of World War II. That is what history will show, and the behavior of journalists in our contemporary times may be history's largest snub to humanity. At least in American news, China repeatedly appears with a sanitized public image, as if newsrooms are perfectly fine when genocide occurs. Liu Binyan was a strong personality who was not "fine" with the abuses and atrocious practices of the CCP. His life is a testament to resisting abuses through daring and incisive journalism. Younger journalists today would do well to take Liu as a role model, over any of the blow-dried set that "reads the news" in the seats of visible Western journalists.
We must wish well to Liu Binyan. We must decry the enforced exile that keeps many native Chinese from returning to China. Now is a good time to call for China to reverse the verdict on June 4, reverse the Falun Gong crackdown, and welcome home the overseas Chinese, who are distanced from their homeland merely because "people are important," and they know it to be so. The overseas exiles are the courageous Chinese who will not betray their consciences. They deserve the restoration of their full Chinese citizenship. And, until a day of justice and political freedom arrives, we must continue to "Tell the World" as Liu Binyan told us to do. I write from an organization called the China Support Network (CSN), where it is precisely our mission to continue to "Tell the World." The legacy of the man who just died is also the mission statement of the CSN, where related work continues and we invite those with interest to join us, in anticipation of justice and freedom.
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