Liu Binyan
Liu Binyan; drawing by David Levine

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 and Hu Jintao, asking for permission to go home. The letters received no response of any kind. The day after Liu’s death a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry had no comment on Liu except that “we have already reached our conclusions about him.”

If it seems odd that the government of the world’s largest nation should fear one ailing, elderly man, we need only remember that Liu was never the sole creator of the tremendous power that his writings generated. That power came from inside China. Liu was a popular hero because he wrote and said publicly things that hundreds of millions of Chinese dared to say only in private, if at all. That Party leaders in 2005 were still afraid of him shows that they were aware not just of Liu’s character but also of the continuing fragility of official truth inside their country.

Beyond the grievous loss of Liu to his family and friends there is another, much larger one, which belongs to all of China. In only nine of the fifty-six years since the founding of the People’s Republic was Liu free to publish inside China. He made the most of those nine years, but what could he have contributed to China if he had had all fifty-six? His lifetime mission was to find a “humane path” into the modern era for his country. He rejected Maoist authoritarianism, and rejected as well the rampant, heartless capitalism of China today. He had no hobbies, but preferred to read deep into the night, in Chinese and English (and in his youth, Russian), studying how societies work and how they might work better. While many Chinese were preoccupied with the United States and the “first world,” Liu also read extensively about Eastern Europe and Latin America, where he found parallels that he thought had greater practical value for China’s situation. Although best known in China for his daring, had he been allowed, he could also have made immense contributions in interpreting the world to his fellow Chinese.


Liu Binyan’s remains were cremated, and his ashes will someday be returned to China. In a conversation several years ago with his wife Zhu Hong, he suggested these words for his epitaph: “Here lies a Chinese person who did some things that had to be done, and said some things that had to be said.”

This Issue

February 9, 2006