andersen-Ottaway lecture

1990 Andersen Lecture
Binyan Liu
exiled Chinese journalist

The Impact of Media on Political Change: A Chinese Perspective

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I am greatly honored to have the opportunity to speak to this distinguished audience. The World Press Freedom Committee has done a lot to promote press freedom in the world. I hope some day your efforts will bear fruit in China.

For nearly 30 years, up until the late 1970s, the Communist Party successfully exercised absolute control over the Chinese media. What people learned from the media were phrases like "the great achievements of socialism" and "the great contribution of the Party leadership." But it was precisely the glorification of the Party’s "achievements" that brought disasters to the people. One example is the overestimation of the grain harvest by hundreds of times its true size. This brought about the great man-made famine of the early 1960s, when 30 to 40 million people died of starvation. The facts of such a monstrous disaster were completely covered up by the Party so successfully that up until now few people in China know about it.

Chinese journalists began to enjoy their first taste of press freedom 12 years ago, in 1978. At that time, Deng Xiaoping was facing a nearly collapsed economy and was in desperate need of reforms to save the Party from destruction. But he was up against strong opposition within the Party. In order to convince his opponents of the necessity of reforms, he had to permit the media to publicize, to a limited extent, the true, devastating economic situation brought about by the follies of Mao and his fellow leaders. Also, in order to mobilize the masses and win allies, he had to rehabilitate the victims of past political campaigns and allow the media to make public the Party’s past mistakes and the sufferings inflicted upon innocent people. Thus, the Party’s taboos began to be violated. Chinese journalists used this opportunity to expand press freedom to its utmost limit.

I myself was fortunate enough to have witnessed the elation of the Chinese people when they obtained their long-sought-after press freedom. In 1979, soon after I was rehabilitated, I wrote my first piece of reportage, called "Man and Monster." It was my analysis of the biggest case of public embezzlement since the founding of the People’s Republic. It exposed the abject poverty caused by wrong policies and defects of the system, which inevitably led to corruption and abuse of power. My work was published in the September issue of the magazine People’s Literature, which had a circulation of 1.48 million. From what I understand, almost every copy in print was reduced to tatters because of the frequency with which it was read and passed along to others. Several newspapers reprinted the story. It was also broadcast by several provincial radio stations. In places where access to the magazine was difficult, people would get together and listen to one person read it aloud.

This kind of reportage helped the readers see more clearly the mistakes and crimes committed by the Communist Party. While in the past they could only base their judgments on their own limited observation and experience, this kind of pubic expose emboldened them to change the status quo.

About the same time, People’s Daily published a story written by another reporter called "Why Jiang Aizhen Turned to Murder." The story is about a young woman accountant in an army farm in Xinjiang who was falsely accused of adultery. She asked cadre leaders to investigate her case to clear her name and punish the accuser. But rather than assist her, the cadres took the side of her accuser and ignored her repeated petitions. Finally, she got so exasperated that she murdered some of the cadres.

The woman in this story won the sympathy of so many people because they were well aware that many wrong verdicts go uncorrected after decades of repeated petitions. In response to this story, more than 10,000 letters from readers poured into the office of People’s Daily, breaking the paper’s record of letters received for one story. Readers showered Miss Jiang with money and gifts, demanding just punishment of the callous cadres and leniency toward her. The local court was forced to change Miss Jiang’s death sentence to 15 years in prison.

Current Party leaders, including Deng Xiaoping himself, consider the influence of Western politics himself, consider the influence of Western politics and culture in China a threat to their very existence. They try very hard to prevent these influences, but their efforts are futile. One reason for their failure is that production of TV sets in China has boomed with economic and technological modernization. In 1987, 130 million Chinese owned TVs, roughly one in ten people. Because China has a vast rural population, most of the TVs made their way into the countryside, bringing peasant families unprecedented access to the outside world. International news and foreign films cannot be banned from TV, so the Chinese people have discovered for themselves that the propaganda of the past 30 years about the West was untrue. Western thoughts have spread rapidly among the younger generation, enabling them to free themselves of Party ideology.

Chinese journalists brave enough to report on the true state of affairs are passionately welcomed by the people and are just as passionately hated by Party bureaucrats. Inasmuch as each and every expose emboldens the people to oppose the corrupt officials’ abuse of power and violation of human rights, journalists are always being accused of "disturbing the stability and creating chaos." As a result, many journalists have been deprived of their rights to write and publish.

Under such conditions, Chinese journalists have to use stories taken from history or from foreign countries to allude to present-day China. For instance, once People’s Daily covered the story of President Reagan’s son in line outside of the unemployment office. As you may know, the space for international news in People’s Daily is very limited, so why would the editors use the precious space for such a trivial story? Superficially, it might mean to expose the crisis of capitalism. But to Chinese readers it had a very different meaning: How can a president’s son ever be unemployed? In China, all the juiciest jobs go to the sons and daughters of the officials, even of the petty officials at the grassroots level, to say nothing of jobs for the children of the president. Isn’t that clearly what the editor wished to imply by such a story? Of course, the authorities are supersensitive to such implications. Once, after People’s Daily reported on the simple lives led by the Italian president and his wife, the editor received a call from a high-ranking official, demanding furiously, "What do you mean by publishing this story? What is your motive?"

The authorities never relax their control over the journalists. Ever since 1913 the Party has tried to take from the journalists their hard-earned press freedom. In only two of my seven years as a reporter at People’s Daily could I publish what I wished. Finally, in January 1987, they could tolerate me no longer. I was expelled for the second time from the Party (the first time was in 1957 for being a "bourgeois rightist") and was again fired from my position as reporter.

This kind of punishment was intended to intimidate the journalists and their readers, but it had just the opposite effect. Readers have shown their support for journalists in a variety of ways. When readers heard of my expulsion, I became continually aware of their strength and courage. Disregarding the trouble they might bring upon themselves for showing me sympathy, they showered me with telegrams, letters, gifts, and money. Some came personally to express their sadness at my plight. Others even invited me to their homes and promised to provide for me for life. Several months after my expulsion, the Party withdrew its prohibition against my publishing. A year later, Party leaders had to permit me to go abroad as a gesture to pacify the public anger and dissatisfaction.

Thus, the journalist who was supposed to have been punished suffered no loss, while the punishers - the Chinese Communist Party - suffered a great loss of authority. All endeavors on the part of the Party to deprive journalists of press freedom have proved counterproductive. In the 1980s, the Party launched three campaigns to oppose the so-called "liberalization." Interestingly enough, the freedom they intended to limit flourished rather than diminished. Despite the fact that journalists in China never had any real organizations of their own, their ceaseless efforts on behalf of press freedom had resulted in gradual but evident change in the various newspapers and magazines.

As you may know, all the publications in China are official as of 1956, but quite a few newspapers and magazines came close to being independent. In 1986 a new wave of literary reportage emerged. A host of previously taboo topics became the themes of reportage. These included the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1967, the great man-made famine of the early 60s, the unjust cases fabricated by Mao himself, and China’s economic, environmental, demographic and spiritual crisis. During the 1987 democracy movement, Chinese journalists not only joined the demonstrations but also broke through the Party’s news blockades to offer accurate reporting of the movement. For the first time in 40 years, all the major papers and TV and radio stations reported the anti-government demonstrations. Even after the June 4 massacre, quite a few journalists, using the writer’s art and the writer’s language, continued to relay the true facts of the bloody repression. For this reason journalists became primary targets during the terror that ensued. A number were forced into exile abroad, quite a few are in prison, and a few more perhaps are facing expulsion from their jobs.

Reading newspapers in China today, one would think that China has gone back to the days of the Cultural Revolution. Ideological matters are entirely in the hands of the hardliners. The press freedoms gained through 10 years of hard work have been taken away. But this is only one side of reality. The reason the Party tries to maintain such strict control is that it fears the people as never before. Chinese journalists have never encountered such difficult and painful situations as at present. Many of them have been expelled. Those who remain have had to restrain their anger, reporting and editing stories against their better judgment. The reason they do not resign or rebel openly is not because they are cowards, but rather because they know that once they leave their posts, they would immediately be replaced by others trusted by the hardliners, possibly people from the army, and then they would lose their chance of speaking out at the right moment, which they believe will come soon. Under such difficult circumstances, they still try to convey messages to their readers.

Recently, Yang Shangkun (president of the republic and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission), who was responsible for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, made an official visit abroad. People’s Daily duly reported his visit and published his picture, which was the proper thing to do. But just beside his picture, an editor placed the story about some Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers, with the title overlapping Yang’s picture, saying: "Murderers must be punished." These efforts, trivial as they may seem, still convey a message to the readers: The journalists haven’t given up; the Party’s purge aimed at the journalists didn’t succeed.

Modern technology has brought many conveniences. As you well know, during the 1989 demonstrations fax machines played an important role in sending news into China. Even after the massacre, when the government was still in chaos, Chinese people in Hong Kong sent in many video tapes telling the real facts about the massacre. But after the chaotic period, the government exercised much stricter customs control over such tapes. At the same time, they tried to control the fax machines, first by sending soldiers to stand guard at each machine, then by changing all the fax numbers so Chinese abroad could not get access to them.

By far, radio broadcast is still the most accessible means of getting information from abroad. Radios with shortwave bands are very popular in China, particularly among peasant families. There are about eight foreign radio stations that the Chinese often listen to. The one with the largest audience is the Voice of America (VOA). The Party has tried to jam VOA, but this has been effective only to a certain extent and only in the big cities. Some engineers say that if the VOA could increase its transmitting power, the Chinese would find it very hard to jam, because it takes 15 times more power to jam the radio waves than to transmit. China’s current drastic energy shortage may therefore prevent successful jamming.

In 1988, 12 to 60 million Chinese listened to VOA. That number doubled during the year after the 1989 democracy movement. Another means of communication is through audio tapes. The number of tape recorders far exceeds that of the TV, so many Chinese abroad hide all kinds of information in the middle of music tapes and send them home. They even have a "tape cassette magazine."

The great changes in Eastern Europe encouraged the whole world, as well as the Chinese people. The hardliners were scared to death of the happenings there. They tried to block the news, for instance, by publishing only one sentence in a very inconspicuous corner of the papers about Nickolae Ceausescu’s death. But the people learned about it from VOA, and the story spread like wildfire in Beijing in half a day.

The changes in Eastern Europe really presented the hardliners with a dilemma. On the one hand, they wished to use the difficulties there to prove that a removal of power from the Party would create chaos. But to make the point they had to let people know about the developments in Eastern Europe, which was against their policies. They therefore resorted to long, tedious, theoretical articles, tirelessly repeating the greatness of socialism and the correctness of the Party. Of course, this kind of propaganda is futile because Chinese newspaper readers have been sick to death of such articles since the 1970s.

Compared to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, China has a great advantage: Hong Kong and Taiwanese publications. Many Hong Kong magazines and newspapers were smuggled into the mainland by thousands of people going in and out of Hong Kong. Once inside, these magazines and papers are passed along, duplicated, read into tapes, or repeated by word of mouth to spread the information. But the Hong Kong papers also suffered from a lack of reliable sources.

All the changes that are happening every day in China and the power struggle at the top are abundant sources of news. My friends and I can sometimes detect very important facts from occasional letters and phone calls from China. I think the most important thing now for journalists to do is try to get news out of China in all kinds of ways and feed it back to the Chinese people. I myself have experimented several times talking to travelers from China, both Chinese and foreign, and every time I have been able to learn something new. By accumulating these pieces of news, we ought to be able to get some solid information.

I once suggested that as a means of expanding news sources, some newspapers might establish an 800 phone number, to which people recently out of China could report things they found interesting there. Some friends think this is possible, but no one has ever tried due to the high cost it may involve.

China has never been in such a severe state of crisis and the regime has never been so fragile. The authorities have tried to make a show of stability, but this show cannot be sustained. It is more urgent than ever that the Chinese people have access to the true facts about their nation, a move that could actually decrease their pessimism and help them realize their own strength.

Exiled Chinese journalists in the United States have founded a newspaper in Los Angeles called Press Freedom Guardian. We are doing our best to expand our sources of information to make the paper an authoritative voice in reporting the true state of affairs in China. We are also doing our utmost to send to China as many copies of the paper as possible. Because of the many challenges we face, we look forward to receiving more assistance and support from the American public. Through such efforts, small as they may be, we hope to make China strong again.

Before I conclude my talk, I wish to call your attention to some recent happenings in China. As you probably know, two young Chinese journalists, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, are facing the possibility of death sentences on charges of intent to overthrow the republic and dissemination of counterrevolutionary propaganda. Chen and Wang worked together at the paper Economics Weekly. From their early youth they have been staunch fighters in the campaign to promote democracy in China.

In the early 1970s, Chen was imprisoned for a letter to Mao Zedong in which he criticized the Cultural Revolution. On his probation in April 1976, he sneaked to Tiananmen Square and made public speeches there, calling upon the people to oppose the wrongdoings of Mao and his fellow leaders. He was regarded as the most dangerous of the "counter-revolutionaries." Then he went back to prison and was released only after the death of Mao and the fall of Mao’s widow and her accomplices. Shortly after his release, Chen started a correspondence school to train the cadres, intending to enlighten them with democratic thinking. At the same time, he established a publishing house to introduce Western ideas of democracy.

Wang Juntao was only in his teens in 1976, but he also took part in the 1976 Tiananmen democracy movement and was imprisoned. Soon after his release, he again became an activist, this time in the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement. Together with Chen, he published a samizdat magazine, Beijing Spring, spreading democratic thoughts that influenced a generation of young people. He campaigned for the office of representative to the District People’s Assembly, opening challenging the official candidates, for which he was nearly expelled from the Beijing University. Then he went to Wuhan and founded a training course for cadres with the intention of spreading democratic thoughts. His activities were discovered by the authorities and he was thrown out of Wuhan.

Then in 1986 Wang and Chen met in Beijing and started the Center for Public Opinion Polls, the first of its kind in China. It played a role in the policy-making of the reformers. In 1987, they used the money they had made in prior years to buy out an academic weekly paper, Economic Weekly, published by the Beijing Economics Institute. Chen became the publisher and Wang the acting deputy chief editor. By their joint efforts, they made the paper highly political, persistently advocating both economic and political reforms. Needless to say, they were very active during the 1989 democracy movement and were subsequently arrested.

Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming have been unceasingly trying to bring democracy to China since the 1970s. They, and all who were imprisoned after the Tiananmen massacre, do not deserve death and punishment. They should be released immediately. But now those imprisoned are being threatened by the Chinese authorities with impending harsh sentences. We must stop their criminal attempts. Washington is now prepared to receive China’s foreign minister and a high-ranking official of foreign trade.

Here I appeal to all the senators, congressmen, politicians, and the American public, to please look at what the Chinese authorities are doing to all these innocent people, including Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao. Please don’t forget that the human rights record of the Chinese government has never really improved. Please don’t forget Tiananmen Square.

Thank you.