Liu Binyan comments on the Lu Yuegang Letter

In the August 2004 issue of Hong Kong-based Cheng Ming magazine, the letter of Lu Yuegang (note: see English translation) was published in full (all 13,000 plus Chinese words).  In addition, the magazine also invited a number of people to comment.  Generally, I don't like political commentary because most of the time people are talking about things that they couldn't know (e.g. the power struggle between different factions inside the Politburo).  But there was one that impressed because it was grounded solidly on the practical realities and principles of operating a newspaper in the political economy of China.  I went back and looked for the author's name: Liu Binyan.  Of course, this is the legend that Perry Link calls China's conscience.  

An even more interesting article by Liu Binyan appears in the same issue of the magazine about the next big crisis in China.  His point there was that there is far too much discussion on intellectuals such as Lu Yuegang and Jiao Guobiao and not enough about the masses.  As in 1919, it was as simple as introducing western liberalism and civic awareness and democracy will arrive.  But the mistake of the Enlightenment teachers was that they only saw the intellectuals and forgot about the masses.  And this new democracy does not seem to require the masses to vote.  Ah, but that is off this topic ...

I have translated Liu Binyan's commentary into English below (and the original Chinese article is here).  Liu's prediction on Lu Yuegang at the end essentially matches mine (see my comments to the translation of Lu's letter), but he puts it much better by listing the options explicitly.  I am inclined to think that there won't be any dramatic moves against Lu or the China Youth Daily editorial staff in the short term; instead, the best long-term strategy would be to "starve the beast" and make this newspaper economically unviable.

A History-Making Challenge

The theoretical debate that began fifty years ago about the fate of China went underground in 1957, but it has just reappeared in public to the world again.  This is the significance of the "battle" between the China Youth Daily represented by Lu Yuegang and the Chinese Communist Youth League central committee.

Why is this called a battle?  Under normal circumstances, such a letter could not have appeared.  When a leader from the upper echelon comes down to deliver a lecture, it represents an authorized order that the lower echelon can only obey without questions, much less resist openly.  Moreover, Zhao Yong's lecture was made to re-emphasize the absolute authority of the Chinese Communist Youth League with respect to the China Youth Daily: "Anyone who does not obey should get out of the door immediately."  But here Lu Yuegang stood up to disagree and said that he wants everyone to decide who should get out of the door!

The greatest difference in opinion is about what should this newspaper be like; alternatively, what sort of newspaper should this be.  Since 1957, this invisible debate has been doing for a half century and there is a historical resolution.  But Zhao Yong brought out a 1951 document to demand the China Youth Daily to return to the resolution made by the League central committee back then.

I am one of the witnesses to that history.  In 1950, China sent its first youth representative group.  Their mission was to learn from the Russian experience, including that of publishing a youth-oriented newspaper.  We went to learn at the Communist Youth League Pravda.  Later I acted as the interpreter for Zhang Lijun, who would become the director and editor-in-chief for the China Youth Daily.  Of course, that was the Stalinist system of newspaper publishing.  When Stalin died in 1953, that newspaper and its system began to change.  Today, the party and its political power have vanished.  But the Communist Youth League Pravda still exists and is quite popular, but it is a completely different newspaper.  For Zhao Yong to bring out a piece of half-century-old antique, what other implication is there beyond his desire to bring China back into the Stalinist era?  Furthermore, during this period, the China Youth Daily has re-invented itself twice!

The first reform took place in the summer of 1967.  Under the obvious guidance of League central committee secretary Hu Yaoban (and Deng Xiaoping who was in the charge of the League on behalf of the CCP central committee), the China Youth League was the first newspaper in the country to go through a transformation.  The main point was that it would no longer be a League newspaper.  Unfortunately, in less than a year's time, seventeen editors and reporters were branded as rightists and the newspaper reverted to its old form.  

The amusing thing is that 30 years later, towards the end of the 1980s, there was another reform and its content was virtually identical as in 1956 in the attempt to shake off the image of the League newspaper.  The reporting was no longer limited only to young people and the Communist Youth League and the coverage would be extended to the whole society include matters that did not involve young people at all.

At the time, I had already left the China Youth Daily.  I was not particularly fond of the newspaper that was re-published in 1978.  But when the second reform occurred, I began its subscriber and I told everyone that this newspaper was worth subscribing to.  "Every day, there were several reports that I felt that I needed to clip to keep."  The China Youth Daily circulation jumped to more than 2 million copies, and this must surely be the proof of the success of the reform?

But something strange happened.  The Chinese Communist Party, which regarded propaganda as being so important, was actually afraid that its own media can influence society!  This is an indication that the nature of the party has changed, because it is extremely vested in maintaining the present situation so that its rule is not shaken.  Meanwhile, all the party members in the journalism who have some conscience will see that their profession requires them to advance reform.  The conflict between Zhao Yong and Lu Yuegang represents these two different social forces.

These two reforms were thirty years apart, yet they looked quite the same.  This is a strong argument for the strength of this law over time and place, and it proves that the nature of newspaper do not change.

Although Deng Xiaoping never took that final step in political reform, he was more tolerant on freedom of media.  That was why it was possible to have three anti-liberalization campaigns (1981, 1983 and 1987) only to be have a new peak for freedom of press in 1988-1989.  

But Jiang Zemin is a completely different matter.  The People's Daily is now closer to its Cultural Revolution self than to the 1980s self.  It has become a reflection of itself during the dozens of years of political retreat after June 4.  The circulation of the China Youth Daily has also dropped to 400,000 plus, losing fourth-fifths of its subscribers.  But even Jiang Zemin didn't ask for the China Youth Daily to return being a League newspaper again.  So why are they doing this now?  Zhao Yong does not have the authority to do this on his own, so it must have come down from higher places.

This is whether one can see the vision and courage of politicians.  Lu Yuegang says that this is now the time for the Chinese Communist Party to "go through democratic means to establish the legitimacy of its political rule."  Twenty-six years ago, Deng Xiaoping faced a similar situation, but his choice was to increase freedom of media in a limited way without fearing of revealing the scars of the party.  This gave support to the reforms while putting down the party conservatives.

The leaders today are in better shape than Deng Xiaoping was.  The economy is better and fewer people suffer from hunger.  But with these new riches, why do they want to take back that little bit of media freedom?  This proves that social stability and political legitimacy cannot be bought with money.  It also exposes the fact that the leaders lack vision and courage and they dare not take risks.  They would rather just get by from one day to the next.  Pulling back freedom can avoid the immediate dangers, and they do not care that the eventual explosion would be significantly worse.

This was undoubtedly a weapon retrieved from the old armory.  They also retrieved another weapon, which was what Zhao Yong said in the conference room of the China Youth Daily: "In order to enhance the permanent leadership position of the Chinese Communist Party, we must rely on the twin barrels of the pen and the gun."  But Zhao Yong's mission to the China Youth Daily this time has revealed one secret: the barrel of the pen can no longer be trusted.

This is a fatal dilemma faced by the Chinese Communist Party.  It wants people who obey their orders -- that is, the type of people who maintain a "high degree of consistency" and who say what they are told and who bit whom they are ordered to.  The Chinese Communist Party may not be good at anything else, but know how to turn gold into stone.  Those whom they value and use are strong in being opportunistic and compliant but they are weak in intelligence, conscience and sensitivity.  People like that can only fail, whereas the successful writers are precisely those whom Zhao Yong would prefer to get out of the door.

The significance of Lu Yuegang's letter is that he has disclosed an important historical fact.  It is this: Lu Yuegang and the majority of China Youth Daily editors and reporters represented by him have publicly declared that there is a break between them and the Chinese Communist Youth League central leadership.  This is unprecedented.

Lu Yuegang wrote that during the half century of history of the China Youth Daily, there were moments of concordance as well as contradictions.  When there were disagreements, the two sides were always able to compromise.  Unless it was some campaign personally initiated by Mao Zedong, there was rarely any punishments.  Even Hu Yaoban took risks in shielding the China Youth Daily's editors and reporters, or else there would have been 30 or more people rather than the 17 who were sacrificed in the Anti-Rightist campaign.

Before the Cultural Revolution, the League leadership was older and more experienced than the China Youth Daily people.  After the Cultural Revolution, the opposite occurred because the China Youth Daily leadership was older and more experienced than the League central leadership.  During the reform of the late 1980s, I sensed that the League central leadership might not have agreed but they did not interfere because they felt that the China Youth Daily leaders were old-time newspaper professionals.  Why have things changed in the 1990s?  I don't know.  Could it that after June 4, most of the newspaper people were considered guilty by implication and therefore the other side thinks that they have the upper hand?

That certain day in 1989 also marked the beginning of an era that excluded reason.  It had never been reasonable, but the Jiang Zemin era began the new way of firing and arresting people on the slightest pretext.  This may seem intimidating, but it has a flaw: what if one day this doesn't work anymore, then what else can be done?

The battle between Zhao Yong and Lu Yuegang exploded in this fashion.  The only effective method to enforce the "leadership of the party" has been to enforce organizational restructuring and to arbitrarily transfer or punish personnel in order to make the publishing unit follow the orders.  Any popularly supported magazines such as "Nanfang Weekend" or Hunan's "Book House" were re-organized as simply as changing a shirt.

Unfortunately, good things don't last because this tactic did not work with the China Youth Daily.  Lu Yuegang solemnly pointed out: "In retrospect, it is difficult not to suspect that the reorganization of the China Youth Daily was a conspiracy that was in the works for a long time ... The message that you wanted to deliver has been received.  But you did not achieve the desired effect of intimidating people.  On the contrary, the Chinese news industry has generated a public scandal for you."

The League central government had the opportunity to handle this the easy way.  More than seventy China Youth Daily editors and reporters wrote a joint letter to League central secretariat and secretary Zhou Chang.  Zhou categorically rejected the letter.  Great.  In a history-making record, a member of a subsidiary unit publishes an open letter highly critical of the upper leadership (and it actually covers a much broader subject) on the Internet.  The Chinese Communist Youth League central leadership has been put in the role of the accused and shamed in front of the whole world!

The contents of the letter are the truth.  It is difficult to deny them; it is also unthinkable to passively admit them.  While Lu Yuegang is a famous reporter, isn't it too extreme to oppose the Party in this aggressive manner?  But what are you going to do about him?  If you attempt anything against him, you may have the entire editorial staff of the China Youth Daily rising against you, with international repercussions as well.  It is also impossible to ignore him, because this is setting up a bad example for others to follow.

Zhao Yong was asked to come out and criticize, and his reputation is now in tatters.  But it wasn't his idea!  Who is going to come out and salvage his image?  It had looked as if it was the order from the party central leadership: clamp down on the media and increase control in order to prevent any social outburst.  But with this blow-up, it would be inappropriate for anyone else to step up now.

Lu Yuegang might not have planned it this way, but he really gave the party leadership a difficult problem to solve.  Organizational measures are the only effective weapon left in the party's hands.  Given Lu's efforts, if they don't punish either the China Youth Daily or Lu Yuegang himself, this sets a precedent and how are they going to exercise the leadership of the party in China?

It has been more than a month since Lu Yuegang's letter was published.  No response has been seen so far.  Since they just went through arresting and releasing Doctor Jiang Yanyong, they had better be careful about what they want to do here.