Liu Binyan
Liu Binyan; drawing by David Levine

Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power and suppressing people’s rights.

In the 1950s Liu wrote stories intended, in the tradition of Confucian literati, to express the views of the inarticulate masses to the country’s leaders. In 1957 he was, as a result, expelled from the Party and sent from Beijing to the countryside to do hard physical labor and was prevented from publishing. After further persecution during the Cultural Revolution, he returned to Peking in the late 1970s to produce an extraordinary series of investigative reports, stories, and essays that were published in Chinese newspapers and periodicals. One of the most powerful and widely praised of these, “People and Monsters,” published in 1979, was a report on the behavior of corrupt Party officials in northeastern China that was seen as applying to corruption in the Party generally. Because of such writings, Liu became one of the main targets of the regime’s campaigns against intellectuals launched in 1981, 1983, and 1987. Along with the physicist Fang Lizhi and the Shanghai writer Wang Ruowang, he was expelled from the Party after Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded General Secretary of the Chinese Communist party, was demoted in 1987.

Liu’s views have gradually but radically changed since the 1950s. He has moved away from the traditional Chinese reliance on ideological persuasion to restrain people in power and now puts more emphasis on the need for legal and political institutions to protect liberties, particularly freedom of the press. While Liu remains a Marxist, he began to express such views publicly and repeatedly during the 1980s.

No writer in the Western countries seems comparable to Liu. His position in China resembles that of Eastern European intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia who, while apparently powerless, can have a deep effect on their society. The great respect now accorded him throughout China derives from his courage in saying what many believe and talk about privately but are afraid to say openly. Now visiting Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, Liu was interviewed by Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, which will publish a somewhat different version of the following interview later this winter.

Merle Goldman


NATHAN GARDELS: Fang Lizhi, the physicist, and yourself are the most prominent intellectuals expelled from the Communist party during the reform period. Fang Lizhi has concluded that socialism failed and Marxism is irrelevant at the end of the twentieth century. You, on the other hand, remain a committed Marxist. Why?

LIU BINYAN: 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 Marxism.

NG: The head of the Soviet Writers Union has said Stalin compromised socialism on a world scale by his crimes. Do you feel the same way about Mao Zedong?

LIU: Stalin was the first to ruin socialism. The second was Mao. Cambodia’s Pol Pot was the third. All of these men completely destroyed the meaning of communism.

These men were not really Marxists at all. They ignored Marx’s basic tenet that socialism presupposes a high level of material development. The conditions in each of the countries where these men came to power were not economically mature enough to build a socialist society.

If we construct a building where there’s no foundation, it’s not a surprise when the building collapses. A society that is supposed to emerge from a materialist theory of development cannot simply be willed into existence.

NG: Is that how you would summarize the experiences of Stalin and Mao—trying to force socialism into existence through political power?

LIU: Yes—utopia through the barrel of a gun.

In the beginning, Lenin himself believed socialism could not happen in an undeveloped place like Russia. He looked to revolution in advanced Germany and Austria to lead the way. When their revolutions aborted, the need to maintain state power persuaded Lenin to push aside the materialist science of Marxism and attempt to establish socialism in one backward country. The result was not true socialism.

Furthermore, there can’t be socialism without democracy. Gorbachev has now made this tenet of Marx into an influential slogan in the ussr—“More democracy means more socialism.” But over the last thirty years there has been less democracy and freedom in both China and the Soviet Union. This can’t be socialism.

NG: So, China has to develop, or redevelop, a market in order to build a more advanced economy before it can become truly socialist?

LIU: That was even Mao’s original theory. In fact, he named the postrevolutionary stage, during which market forces would develop the economy, “the new democratic phase.” In 1949, Mao said China’s “new democracy” would need fifteen to twenty years before it could change over into socialism. But in 1953, Mao wanted to be the leader of the world communist movement so he attempted to leap into socialism. He ignored the material reality and tried to rush into the “glorious future.”


NG: You sound very much like Abel Aganbegyan, an economic adviser to Gorbachev, who has remarked that everything since Lenin was a mistake!

LIU: Even though the Maoist course was premature and mistaken, there were achievements. We built heavy industry; culture and education advanced; the people’s standard of living was raised. But we paid a great price—twenty cents for something that should have cost only five cents.

Perhaps our enormous suffering has contributed to humanity. We have taught other countries not to take our disastrous path.

NG: The price China must now pay for this tragic past is the deep disillusionment of today’s youth. What can a young person believe about the future in China?

LIU: So many of our youth have seen nothing good since they were born. Now, everything depends on the reform and democratization process, including reform of the Communist party itself. I believe our youth will gradually see that there is hope for China.


NG: What is the difference in outlook between a Chinese intellectual in 1956, at the time of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and an intellectual now during the reform period?

LIU: There is a profound difference. In 1956 Chinese intellectuals still believed in the Party. Now they don’t.

Chinese intellectuals awoke in 1956 from the slumber of Stalinist “socialist realism,” in large part as a result of Khrushchev’s thaw in the Soviet Union. They realized then that idealizing life in literature and the arts had been a mistake. Instead of writing that everyone lived well, they now sought to depict life realistically, with all the contradictions and conflicts of socialist society that “realism” had attempted to suppress.

Paradoxically, just as this “new wave” thinking began to take hold, China embarked on a new phase of “socialist construction” patterned after Stalin’s industrialization of the Soviet Union. This course transformed the Chinese Communist party into the very bureaucratic and oppressive apparatus that Khrushchev was criticizing. The Party soon clamped down brutally on critical thinking, which was not reactivated until after the Two Great Disasters—the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—completely destroyed faith in Mao and the credibility of the Party.

When intellectual life awakened in 1979, twenty-three years after the 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign, the faith of Chinese intellectuals in the Party was profoundly shaken.

In 1979, many intellectuals nevertheless took the new opportunity to begin developing a theoretical framework to support the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Essays and reports published in the People’s Daily negated the era of Mao as a total mistake. But no sooner did this begin than the Party leadership decided that they could not allow the complete delegitimation of Mao without endangering their own power.

Rather than a new ideological openness, Deng himself put forward the Four Cardinal Principles in 1979 which constrain intellectual freedom in China to this day. Those principles are keeping the socialist road; upholding the People’s Democratic Dictatorship; respecting the leadership of the Chinese Communist party; and adhering to Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought.

I was expelled from the Party in 1987 for breaching these principles.

NG: What on earth does Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought mean? I asked a twenty-one-year-old student in China this question, and all she could answer was “love the motherland.”

LIU: There are many slogans like “Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought” in China which are not taken seriously either by those who shout them or by those who listen.

Over the last ten years, the more intellectuals have fought for the reforms launched by Deng, the more they have been attacked for breaching the Four Cardinal Principles, including the violation of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought. Since the reforms are totally opposed to the economic ideas of Mao, the officials launching reforms have found it necessary to proclaim unanimously their loyalty to the Four Cardinal Principles. In fact, these principles, that have been put into a constitution that guarantees freedom of thought and expression, do not belong there. I suppose these weird juxtapositions can only happen in China.

NG: What accounts for the two-steps-forward, one-step-back nature of change in China?

LIU: Since 1979, liberalization has occurred in an on-and-off fashion, opening up and closing down. Virtually every year there has been a campaign against liberalization, but each campaign gets weaker and weaker.

In 1981 there was the long campaign against Bitter Love, the film by Bai Hua in which he exposed the people’s sufferings during the Cultural Revolution and laid the blame squarely on Mao. In 1983 there was the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution which lasted only twenty-seven days. In 1987 there was the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign that was stopped after three months.


These campaigns all belong to a single strand of counterreform which emanates from one faction of the leadership that is obviously getting weaker as time goes on.

NG: But didn’t former chairman of the CCP Hu Yaobang’s dismissal last year mean a weakening of liberalizing forces in the Party?

LIU: Even though Hu Yaobang has been removed, the forces that he represented inside the Party have actually become stronger. They’ve expanded even in the last year because the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign provoked very strong negative reactions both inside and outside the Party. The dismissal of Hu Yaobang and the expulsion of Fang Lizhi and myself were viewed as illegal acts against the Party and the Constitution. For the first time, people publicly opposed a political campaign and defended its victims. They asserted that the Party’s actions were against the Constitution.

There is another reason why progressive forces in the Party have become stronger: the Party anticorruption, or “rectification,” program of 1983 and 1984 failed. Originally a lot of people had put their hopes in the rectification program, because it was going to eliminate the corrupt elements from the Party. Even some conservative-minded people in the Party wanted to see the Party improved, and they also opposed corruption.

So, when Hu Yaobang was deposed and I was expelled, there was sympathy for our position, even from many conservatives, because not only had the corruption problem not been solved, but those who opposed corruption had been thrown out of the Party! As a result, the corrupters became more brazen and attacked those who had exposed the corruption. Their brazenness, which has become more blatant, has upset even some conservatives who are moving closer to our side.

This realignment is key to understanding the current political situation in China. “Conservatives” realize that opposing the free expression which exposes corruption harms their own interests in reestablishing the credibility and leadership of the Party. That’s why the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign ended so quickly.

The Party leadership also finally understood that every time it unleashed a new campaign the economy was severely damaged. Private businessmen and foreign investors, already nervous about Party stability, were worried; and these campaigns only proved that the fears of the private concerns were correct.


NG: Does the Party leadership now believe that political reform is necessary for economic reform? Or, in effect, is Deng Xiaoping for perestroika without the glasnost?

LIU: The economic reform is a very long leg in China, while the political reform is a very short one. One can’t proceed without being tripped up by the other. The student movement in 1986 exploded because political reform has hardly begun.

Actually, the first person to bring up the idea of political reform was Deng Xiaoping. In 1980 he said we must reform the political system, fight feudalism and bureaucracy, and expand democracy.

But it never came to pass. The resistance within the Party was too strong. Senior officials refused to give up their positions and privileges. They are not concerned about socialism; they are concerned only with their own interests and that of their children and grandchildren. I think real glasnost, or openness, will gradually come about, not because conservatives want it, but because the people will force them to accept it.

NG: Is there another conservative reaction on the horizon?

LIU: If there is it will have different rationalizations than past campaigns.

It’s possible high inflation will be the excuse. Inflation has caused a lot of dissatisfaction among the masses. Conservatives could use economic reasons to attack the reforms, saying, “Look! The majority of people are suffering from inflation while a minority who benefit from the market reforms lives well!”

That approach might be effective because people are upset about the new social inequality and what they perceive as a falling standard of living. Peasants are often richer than urban dwellers, and a cab driver, for instance, can make ten times as much as a bus driver and even an intellectual.

NG: How would you compare China’s progress under reform to the Soviet Union’s?

LIU: There are many areas where conditions in China are behind those in the Soviet Union, including political and cultural conditions, and the state of the legal system. The Soviet Union is also riddled with corruption, but Gorbachev has been more effective in exposing this corruption.

But we are better off than the Soviets in the sense that, after the Cultural Revolution, nobody in China believes anymore. As a result, if a drastic reform program is put forward in China that challenges all dogma, the people will not oppose it the way many are opposing reforms in the Soviet Union.

Another distinction. While the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign got rid of Hu Yaobang, the reforms went forward. It was decreed in March 1987 that in the elections to the local people’s congresses there would be more candidates than positions to be filled and that the candidates can be nominated not only by the Party but by the people themselves. If the Soviet Union were to have an antiliberalization campaign that removed Gorbachev, their reforms would be in real difficulty.

NG: How important for the Chinese is the Soviet experience of perestroika and glasnost?

LIU: Very important. We are watching Gorbachev because he began his reforms with politics and the media. He is very good at glasnost, which is exactly what China lacks.

So we would be very concerned if Gorbachev should fail. If Gorbachev is successful, it will encourage Chinese intellectuals and the media to demand greater freedom. One of China’s biggest difficulties is that our problems are always covered over. For example, China has never fully revealed the Party’s role in the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. We have to open up and face our problems if we are going to fix them.

If we don’t open up, then we won’t have democracy. Democracy means the power to choose, and choice is an illusion without information.


NG: As the substructure of the economy evolves under market reforms, the Chinese economy will develop different strata with conflicting interests. Some people will become richer than others; peasants will want more for their crops, urban workers will want cheaper produce.

Won’t these different interests seek expression in multiple political parties?

LIU: Before 1957, the question of multiple parties was actually raised in China, but for the near future I don’t think it’s possible to have multiple parties.

China is a very special country. There is no other country with such a long “feudal” history—two thousand years, ten times the length of European medieval times. Furthermore, in the forty years since the revolution the Party has not allowed opposition parties or tolerated people with different political ideas. It has not allowed nonpolitical ideologies to spread.

As a result, it is even more difficult for a political society or organization to appear in China than in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Unless social chaos and popular pressure develop to the degree that they render the Party utterly powerless, a new opposition is not likely to appear. The more realistic possibility is the evolution of pluralism within the Party.

NG: What would pluralism within the Chinese Communist party look like? After all, there seems to be no room for critical Marxists like yourself. You were expelled.

LIU: But so many of my comrades are still in the Party; and, because they are in the Party, in three to five years the Party will change internally, even though the outer shell of the CCP may not change. In fact, the Four Cardinal Principles are themselves a statement that this outer shell cannot change. But the insides will change. The Communist party is right now in the midst of internal change. The Party leadership has lost control over the Party itself. The progressive forces at different levels disregard instructions from above when they feel they are not beneficial to their districts. So, there is room for pluralism in the Chinese Communist party.

NG: Does that internal pluralism satisfy your idea of socialist democracy, or are you simply admitting the upper historical limit of what is now possible in China?

LIU: I’m not at all satisfied. But China is a country with a lot of walls, symbolized by the Great Wall. Many changes occur behind the wall, but it is difficult to see these changes because the wall itself is the same as before.

It’s hard to say in what form future changes will take place. Perhaps one day the different factions within the Party will publicly acknowledge their differences, and there will be an organizational mechanism for Party pluralism. At present there is no organizational mechanism, but the factions nevertheless exist and struggle without a set of rules. In the secret elections at the Thirteenth Party Congress in the fall of 1987, in which it was possible to choose among several candidates, several conservative candidates lost out.

NG: What are the most important historically and politically possible reforms that could help curb corruption and the abuse of power?

LIU: There are two vital reforms. One is to expand freedom of the press. The other is to strengthen the legal system.

Freedom of the press means that existing newspapers, Party newspapers, have more freedom to expose, criticize, and express different opinions. This process has already begun. Papers such as the China Youth Daily are still Party newspapers, but in reality they aren’t the same newspapers they once were. For example, the president of China’s elite Beijing University, Ding Shixun, criticized the government for not giving enough attention and money to education. Even though the authorities were angered by this criticism, the China Youth Daily published his speech. The editors knew they would be censured for it, but they did it anyway. In addition, we also need to establish independent newspapers that are outside the reach of the Party.

Interestingly enough, Beijing People’s University recently polled two hundred high-level Party cadres. Seventy percent believed that Party newspapers were not managed well. More than 70 percent said they did not believe the newspapers. Thirty-four percent believed that there should be a large independent newspaper. As the inflation continues to accelerate, the Party’s power continues to weaken, and a relatively independent middle class emerges in the countryside and cities, a constituency is being formed that could support independent newspapers.

Reform of the legal system has only just begun. Previously, we had the pitiful situation where there were no private attorneys at all, only government attorneys. Now we at least have a small number of private attorneys who may be able to defend victims of official abuse.

NG: After all you’ve been through, all the ups and downs, the backward and forward patterns of reform and reaction, do you still have faith that China can build the type of socialism that inspires you?

LIU: Yes, because of my faith in the Chinese people. We are a very intelligent and industrious people. And we have paid such a high price—Americans can’t understand because they have never had to pay such a price. The deaths, the suffering, and the misfortune have forged a strength that will push society forward.

In 1957, before our great man-made disasters, the Chinese people were not strong enough to push forward. Now, they are.