Saturday, December 4, 2010

People of 1989: Liu Binyan

The famous journalist Liu Binyan was not in Beijing during the 1989 student movement. In fact, he was out of the country in the United States on a lecturing tour. He watched the movement on television and became a prominent oversea voice.

Born in 1925, Liu Binyan spent his childhood in Northeast China under the occupation of the imperial Japanese army. He had to drop out of school after ninth grade because of poverty but he managed to acquire a lifelong passion for books on his own. Later, the young Liu Binyan joined the underground Communist Party in the 1940s.

After the communists took power, Liu Binyan worked as an editor, investigative reporter, and Party secretary of the China Youth News. It was in that position that he first ran into trouble with the authority in the mid-1950s. His budding work on exposing corruption in the "new China" led him to be branded as a "rightist". He was expelled from the Party and sent to a mountain village to be reformed through hard labor.

Liu Binyan's literate career finally took off a couple of decades later, when he was redeemed in 1978, at the cusp of Deng Xiaoping's reform. He was readmitted into the Communist Party became a special reporter for the People's Daily. Throughout the 1980s, he published a series of investigative reports that gained national fame and international attention. His exposure of corrupt officials struck a chord with the common folks and he was praised as "China's conscience." However, his work also tended to blur the line between facts and fiction, a trend deeply rooted in China's literate tradition.

His outspokenness also irked Deng Xiaoping. In January of 1987 and after a series of student protests, Liu Binyan was once again expelled from the Communist Party as a symbol of the socalled "Bourgeois Liberation" movement, along with Fang Lizhi and Wang Ruowan.

A year later, Liu Binyan was allowed to travel abroad. When he was teaching at UCLA, his host Perry Link remembers him as the only scholar from China who showed no interest in Disneyland. Instead, "for days, his favorite hangout was a used-book store run by the Salvation Army. Already self-taught in English as well as Russian, he bought piles of paperbacks for 25 cents apiece and read them until 3am, night after night, devouring everything from the musings of Malcolm X to analyses of Eastern European socialism."

In 1989, Liu Binyan watched the student movement from across the ocean. While his direct influence to the movement was limited, he became a tireless cheerleader on the American media and always ready to spill out inside information he gathered from "his friends in Beijing" and his own optimistic predictions, many of which proved questionable at best.

During the later years of his life as he battled cancer, Liu Binyan lobbied for returning to his motherland by writing letters to a series of Chinese leaders including Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Wen Jiabao. His appeal fell into deaf ears. He finally passed away on December 5, 2005, in a hospital in New Jersey. He was 80.

Despite his dissent, Liu Binyan remained a loyalist to his ideals which included his belief in the "true" Marxism and socialism. Through one of his most famous works, he named it a "second kind of loyalty" -- being both loyal and truthful at the same time.

He had told his wife that he wished to have the following words in his tombstone: "this Chinese laying here, he had done what he should do and said what he should say."

UPDATE: Five years after his death, his ashes were finally buried in Beijing.

People of 1989


Anonymous said...

Hi, Eddie,

If you were once at UCBerkeley after UPenn,
we met many years ago. Thanks for the book !

Eddie Cheng said...

Yes, I was at Berkeley for a couple of years after Penn State (not UPenn). Too bad I don't know who you are. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering back to this anonymous reader, Eddie ! Correct, you were at PSU instead of UPenn.. I am really glad to have found you again by your book, I was fond of your writing and witty thoughts. I would rather remain as an anonymous reader for now. Who would remember everyone you happen to run into in the past anyway ?

Anonymous said...

Hi, im a student of Penn State. Im doing a project about the chinese american's response to tiananmen uprising. Liu Binyan is one person i am interested in. Would u please accept my interview (may have to through a phone call).

my email: