Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his course through life was his bent for speaking out combined with his utter inability to say anything that he thought to be false. This was so even in small matters. During his last visit with me he said, “You’re a Sinologist, but I have never tasted really good Chinese tea at your house.”
In an authoritarian political system like China’s, this sort of candor is dangerous. In 1956 Liu published stories about how officials controlled the press and engaged in industrial corruption; the next year the Chinese Communist Party, whose underground organization he had joined in 1943, expelled him for “anti-Party, anti-socialist” activity. He was denounced, banned from print, and sent to a remote mountain village. Twenty-two years later, during the thaw after the death of Mao, authorities “reversed the verdict” on him, readmitted him to the Party, and restored his right to publish.
While this sort of treatment had made many other writers meek, Liu returned to his work with even more passion, exposing injustice and analyzing corruption in more depth and detail than before. He spoke of “two kinds of truth,” one that floated down from “the policies of the higher-ups” and another that forced its way up from below, from “the longings of the common folk.” He wrote stories about corrupt officials, who, for example, diverted coal supplies to their cronies in exchange for kickbacks, and then could say with a smile that this was “serving the people,” while arranging life sentences for anyone who dared to object.
By the mid-1980s he had earned the nickname “China’s conscience.” People from throughout China lined up at his door, asking him to help them right wrongs. In 1985, when Chinese writers were allowed (for the first and only time) to hold free elections for posts in the Chinese Writers’ Association, only the elderly Ba Jin, famous since the late 1920s, got more votes nationwide than Liu.
That same year, though, Liu published a long article in which he argued that loyalty to socialist ideals must sometimes take precedence over loyalty to the leaders of a socialist system. Soon thereafter Deng Xiaoping labeled Liu a “bourgeois liberal,” and in 1987 he was expelled from the Party for a second time. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1989, at the time of the June Fourth massacre in Beijing, and he went on US television to denounce the killings. After that he was never allowed back in China. A complete ban on his work inside China has left a younger generation of Chinese with little idea of who he was. Ill with cancer during his final three years, Liu sent letters, hand-delivered by sympathizers, to Jiang Zemin …