From Binyan to Freezing Point

The following is a translation of an essay by Qian Gang.  Who is Qian Gang?  Here is the staff biography from the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

Qing Gang  Best known for his tenure as managing editor of Southern Weekend, China's most progressive newspaper, Qian Gang is regarded as one of China's foremost investigative journalists. Qian was also a co-creator and executive editor of "News Probe," CCTV's pioneering weekly investigative news program with nearly 20 million viewers. Qian collected historical documents for Chinese Boy Students, a book and five-hour documentary series on 120 young Chinese students sent to universities in the United States by the Qing government in the late 19th century. He is also the author of "The Great China Earthquake," an investigative report on the 1976 earthquake at Tangshan in which 250,000 people were killed.

From Binyan to Freezing Point -- Remembering the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of "On The Bridge Worksite" and "Internal News At Our Newspapers."  By Qian Gang (钱钢).  Original Chinese-language article at the Details (Blogbus) blog (also ESWN backup).

Number 2, Ocean Transport Warehouse, Dongzhimen South Little Street, Beijing, is the address of China Youth Daily.  There is half a century between 1956 and 2006, but two historical events occurred in this same compound.  In the former case, the newspaper's reporter Liu Binyan (刘宾雁) published "On the Bridge Worksite" and "Internal News at our Newspaper" and was then branded a "rightist" one year later.  In the latter case, the Freezing Point weekly magazine was suspended for re-organization, and the chief editor Li Datong and the deputy editor Lu Yuegang were both relieved of their duties.  Incredibly, in this "historical replay," the person who led the struggle against Liu Binyan during the Cultural Revolution is the Central Propaganda News Critical Reading Group director who wiped out Freezing Point in 2006.

At this time fifty years ago, the name Liu Binyan became famous in Chinese journalism, literature and youth organization.  In April, People's Literature published his critical special feature, "On The Bridge Worksite."  In June and September, People's Literature published his "Internal News At Our Newspaper" and its sequel.

After witnessing the list of events surrounding Freezing Point (including Lu Yuegang's letter to China Youth League Secretariat Executive Secretary Zhao Yong, Li Datong's open letter to China Youth Daily editor-in-chief Li Erliang, the "suspension of publication," "the job re-assignments," etc), you will be shocked at the cyclic repetition of history when you re-read "Internal News At Our Newspaper."

At a Party newspaper in a certain large city, under the leadership of an editor-in-chief whose thinking has been ossified and who only followed the orders of the leaders and an editor manager who only wanted to protect himself, things were disconnected from reality and uninteresting.  The young reporters and editors were defeated again and again when they tried to change the direction of the newspaper.  Finally, one day, the newspaper adopted a new system in which they didn't rely on official subscriptions; instead, they needed the readers to buy the newspaper at the retail level.  Immediately, a crisis revealed itself -- the circulation plummeted because people didn't want to read this newspaper!

Liu Binyan was not a solitary wild goose soaring high in the sky.  His was one of the voices of freedom that appeared during the "Let the one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools contend" campaign of 1956.  During this year of "de-frosting," you could read, "The resolution by the Soviet Russian Central Committee on overcoming the Cult of the Personality and its consequences," the column on "Our viewpoints on democracy," many cartoons that criticized the officials of voicing empty talk or holding pointless meetings, and even editorial commentaries.  During that year, China stood on the threshold of democracy and the Chinese media also stood on the threshold of democracy.  In "Internal News At Our Newspaper," Liu Binyan proposed the reform of journalism.  As a reporter, he practiced it himself.

In the spring of 1957, Mao Zedong called for a "rectification of incorrect working styles" and he welcomed people from various sectors to criticize the Communist Party and the government.  On May 13, Liu Binyan published in China Youth Daily a report titled "Shanghai is in deep thought" about "during the dozens of meetings in recent days, people from various sectors offered criticisms to the city party committee leaders ...," "it is worthwhile to note that many people are still reluctant to speak out ... they are afraid of 'being trapped,' they are afraid of being reported ... the principal worry is being asked to do self-criticism."

Overnight, Liu Binyan became a "big rightist element."  Uintendedly, he had revealed the secret of Mao Zedong wanting to "lure the snakes to come out of their holes."  Mao wrote that this "was intended to mess up the matter."  When the anti-rightist storm came, China Youth Daily criticized him for days.  "Internal news at our newspaper" was deemed to be "promoting capitalist journalistic viewpoints and methods of running a newspaper" and an "evil stab in the back of the Party."

Upon re-reading "Internal news at our newspaper," you may ask, "Where is the capitalism?"  Is not Liu Binyan's method of running a newspaper exactly the road that the Chinese media should be following today?  What Liu Binyan said about "the mouthpiece of the people" was incorporated by Zhu Rongji in his "News Focus" interview; Wen Jiabao's "only when the people monitor the government will the government not dare to relax" and Li Changchun's "Three closeness" were very similar to the viewpoints of Liu Binyan that the newspaper must be closely connected to the masses!  Still, the open flogging of the media continues as before.

Liu Binyan had joined the revolution in his youth.  He never imagined that the decision to brand him as a rightist begins with this first crime: "Wildly attacking the Party Central and the Party leaders at various levels."  Fifty years later, a groundless accusation of "a spearhead aimed at the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system" put away Mr. Yuan Weishi's essay published by the Freezing Point magazine of China Youth Daily as well as Freezing Point itself.

On July 19, 1957, China Youth Daily reported on the "forum" that revealed and criticized Liu Binyan.  In his auto-biography, Liu Binyan wrote: "When I entered the meeting room, I sensed that there was some wave which went from the entrance across the entire meeting hall -- people seemed to have been surprised by something.  After the meeting was over, I found out that someone had leapt to his death from this building.  Obviously, he deliberately chose this location -- his body form would have passed right past the windows of the meeting hall."  It had been a colleague of Liu Binyan, who was being investigated for merely praising the work of Liu Binyan.

I met Binyan in the 1980's.  But apart from his work, I didn't really understand him.  Due to the inaccessibility of information, I read his auto-biography only later in 1988.  As I read what happened to him, tears came out of my eyes over and over again.  In front of my eyes were one picture after another of the many calamities in Chinese media over this half-century.

Which major law did Liu Binyan break?  He had only fulfilled the duties of a reporter and the mission of a feature writer.  He spoke a few truthful words and articulated his wish in a rather controlled and tactful manner on behalf of journalistic reform.  "We would rather have ten new ideas that have some basis even if they are not totally correct, rather than one hundred totally correct ideas that are just parroting."  Is this opposing the party?  "The stars seemed to be much smaller than the moon, but they are lovely because they shine their own light."  Is this counter-revolutionary?  When he gathered news at the Harbin Electricity Plant, he posted a note to ask the workers to talk to him if they had something to say.  Is this "stirring up the workers to cause trouble"?

When Liu Binyan and the large number of "rightists" were sent down to the rural villages for labor reform, it was the period of the Great Famine.  He recalled:

"... I was so starved that my legs were swollen.  I was worn out even trying to cross one field.  'Eating' occupied all my thoughts.  I put away all sense of shame.  I have eaten the half-ripe tomatoes here.  When I had only had two food coupons and a few cents and I had to drag the night soil cart across the streets of Beijing, I struggled but I could not resist buying a little bit of dim sum to eat.  I knew that I didn't have the ability to earn money to buy expensive food for my child frequently or occasionally like other families.  When I ate a piece of dim sum, it was like taking food out of the mouth of my child."

In March 1966, Liu Binyan finally had his "rightist" label removed.  Yet, the period of "magnanimity" passed by quickly.  One day in early June, 1966, the corridors of China Youth Daily was suddenly plastered with big character posters with headlines such as "Rightist element Liu Binyan still wants to oppose the party."  Liu Binyan never dreamed that when he went home every day, the female colleague sitting across him would open up his never-locked desk drawer and read his diary of his days in the rural village, while copying down the so-called "counter-revolutionary ideas."

Liu Binyan described the situation of his being criticized in his autobiography:

"... in the very familiar office there sat seven very familiar people.  But the seven faces have completely changed.  Seven judges, one accused.  They each sat in front of their desks.  I stood alone in the middle of the office.  The chief judge Liu Zuju's experience and political character led me to believe that he will be the toughest on me ... sure enough, his first action was to pound fiercely on the desk and shout out at the same time:

'Liu Binyan!  You must remove your disguise.  You must honestly confess your new crimes against the Party and socialism!'"

This "extremely tough" Liu Zuyu is the leader of the Central Propaganda Department's critical reading group today.

Fifty years!  The many experiences of the Chinese media today inevitably reminds us of Liu Binyan in 1957 and 1966.  The Freezing Point incident stirred up the attention of global media, of course.  But in the writings of many reporters outside of mainland China, the Freezing Point incident seemed to be simplistic, either intentionally or unintentionally.

I must say that 2006 is no longer like those dark years of the past.  It isn't.

The cruel officials are still here, but the strongmen are gone.  Freezing Point can resume publication, the Freezing Point team can still be said to exist, and Li Datong and Lu Yuegang did not fall into Liu Binyan's condition back then.  Of course, this is not exactly great progress.  But Chinese media have been undergoing a transformation, and that should not be lost.

At certain international occasions, I have used the three C's to characterize Chinese media today to my friends: Control, Change, Chaos.  After the Freezing Point incident, including its nearly absurd outcome, I am even more confident in my assessment.  China needs reforms in the economy, society and politics, for there is no choice.  Chinese media today cannot longer be put under the same old rusty ultra-leftist chains that brought Liu Binyan down.  The three C's are mixed together and it has caused the Chinese media people hardship as well as create space for them to develop.  If you only see the harshness and despair in the long list of media that have been shut down, then how can you understand the fact that Li Datong was able to start Freezing Point and continued and developed over ten years already?

This is not just about Freezing Point.  When Liu Binyan was persecuted again in 1987 and forced to go into exile, his name was removed from the public to the point that journalism students today are unfamiliar with his name, but the spirit and strength of Liu Binyan did not vanish.  This strength can be seen in Nanfang Weekend which "insists on keeping the conscience, praises righteousness and publicizes compassion", in Southern Metropolis Daily which is unafraid of the powerful and in Caijing magazine and News Investigation which insist on journalistic professionalism.  In 1956, Liu Binyan called for "independent thinking" and "boldly interfering in life," and these are the professional standards for the best media today.  In the 1980's, Liu Binyan started the tradition of "independent investigation" and "caring for the base strata" in the reportage literary movement (actually, it is a movement to fight for freedom of press) and this has been actively adopted and developed by the media.  Even when reportage literature was in ebb tide after Liu Binyan and Su Xiaokong were gpme, there came someone like the author of "Lonely Citizen in a Grand Nation," Lu Yuegang (former deputy editor at Freezing Point) whose ideas and professional standards set new heights.  The commercialization and vulgarization of media showed clamor and chaos that Liu Binyan did not see twenty years ago, but there were also new space and opportunities.  Freezing Point appeared precisely in this atmosphere of reform in journalism.

Freezing Point is a weekly magazine within China Youth Daily.  Li Datong used this "special zone" to attempt a reform experiment within a nationally distributed mainstream newspaper.  He believed that this newspaper is responsible for the communication of the major social values of a country; it is responsible for protecting the public's right to know about important national matters and guaranteeing the exercise of the right to debate; it is an important spokesperson of social justice and conscience; it is a "pressure safety valve" and "advance warning siren" for maintaining social stability and security when operating properly.

Freezing Point came in this manner with these goals.  Li Datong and Lu Yuegang said: "What do the people want?  The freedom of news and speech as guaranteed by the Constitution.  They want information that is valuable to their living environment.  They want social injustice to be investigated and exposed.  They want to restrain the powerful groups and assist the weak groups.  They want the deep reflections that are essential to the existence and development of the nation and its people."  In Lu Yuegang's open letter to Zhao Yong, he wrote: "Our difference is that while you are interested in power plays and want to create an obedient 'League' newspaper following the official rules, we want to have a good newspaper that will be remembered for promoting the development of Chinese society.  You want followers, tools and mouthpieces, but from the first day that we entered this newspaper, we made up our minds to transform the 'servant culture,' 'villain culture' and 'political culture' that have been formed over the decades ..."  When Freezing Point was suspended for re-organization in 2006, Li Datong and Lu Yuegang formally held the Constitution and the Party Regulations in their hands and mounted an unprecedented defense of their rights!

This is the living environment of Chinese media fifty years after Liu Binyan published "Internal news at this newspaper": the good and the bad are crossing paths; the new and the old are struggling against each other; historical progress and retrogress co-exist; the media rushed into the marketplace with quick steps even as their steps towards freedom are heavy and hard; the person who suppressed Liu Binyan back then is still persecuting Freezing Point and any other media which is challenging the yoke today.  But the reform of journalism is like the sparks that are setting the plains ablaze, and they cannot be stopped and held back.  This is the "chaos" that cannot be simply characterized in black-or-white terms.

On December 14, 1994, I participated in the planning meeting for the inauguration of Freezing Point.  Under the not-quite-lenient speech environment, several scholars spoke insincerely in a frigid house.  The impression from that meeting would never allow me to think that Freezing Point would achieve such glorious heights later on.

The belief of Li Datong was: "We are in the midst of a long evolutionary process.  We must have enough flexibility, we will not be disappointed, we will not be discouraged, we will continue by insisting on following the requirements of our professional conscience ..."  Freezing Point did not give up an inch of progress because there was no environment with no 'freedom of press.'  Their journalistic work covered from the open space of fresh air to the corners that are deficient in oxygen: from environmental protection and volunteerism to cultural heritage, from academic fraud and youth problems to educational reform, from young nannies and working girls to the rights of vulnerable groups, from civic ethics and public health crisis to democratic elections, from the abuse of public rights to various kinds of new social conflicts ...

Without a doubt, some friends are estranged from all this.  Certain western colleagues are super-sensitive about which Chinese media broke which regulations and suffered which punishments, which media were shut down and which editor-in-chief was ousted; but they do not understand how innumerable Chinese media people have been engaged in a lasting construction in the manner of a rope sawing a log or water drops drilling a hole through a rock.  Very few people are like Ms. Lung Ying-tai who has such a deep empathy with the sweetness and bitterness experienced by our Chinese media people, holds such a thorough understanding and offers genuine and selfless assistance to the Chinese media in flux.

The founder of Southern Weekend, Mr. Zuo Fang, once said: "We may have truths that we cannot say, but we shall not tell lies."  In the open letter to Zhao Yong, Lu Yuegang also recounted a conversation between a deputy editor-in-chief at China Youth Daily and the former Central Propaganda Department News Bureau director Zhong Puizhang: One, we are determined not to tell lies; two, we will not actively tell lies; three, if we must tell lies, we will not make them up.  Please notice that these are the principles of running a newspaper with "unique Chinese characteristics" and it allowed many of the best media to avoid trouble time and again during the time of chaos, to ward off the controls, to win the people's hearts and to seize those fleeting moments of development.

Yes, this is a gentle and gradual "reform from within the system."  Compared to the utopia in our minds or in the textbooks, it is definitely imperfect, even distorted and incomplete.  But it has the possibility of being realized and it can help a group of media people who are trustworthy, who have a sense of responsibility and who keep a distance away from power and money to develop and grow on Chinese soil.  This will have a deep impact on the "freedom" that may come tomorrow.

After the Cultural Revolution, Lin Binyan "returned" as a reporter at People's Daily and he was only permitted to publish "positive reports" at that newspaper.  But he said, "I am willing to write about the results of the economic reform and the impact on the lifestyles of millions of people as well as human relationships."  The only time that I got to talk to Liu Binyan in close was in 1983 when I ran into him at an Air Force hostel.  I asked him what he was doing, and he said that he was writing a story about the "model spiritual culture" of the armed forces.  When he saw my astonished look, Liu Binyan smiled meaningfully and said, "I know what to write."  Later I saw what he wrote was: how a "good person" can do good in a special environment -- when the party spirit is corrupt, he cannot change things but he can use his meager efforts to do some small "good things."

You may see that this is a forced compromise with the controls, and you can also say that this is a well-intended collaboration for the big picture.  But the important thing is Liu Binyan's open insistence and sincerity.  In the published diaries of Liu Binyan, it was recorded: in 1985, he was interested in the reforms of the cadre system being planned by Shanghai City Party Organization director Zeng Qinghong and deputy director Zhao Qizheng and so he went over to meet the planners: "I did not expect that we would communicate so well and so long."

The authorities are the ones who ought to reflect deeply.  Liu Binyan who was criticized fifty years ago and Freezing Point which was re-organized fifty years later were also the most valuable progressive forces within the system.  The nation is like a forest in which tens of thousands of trees grows along with an abundance of pests, so why should woodpeckers like Binyan and Freezing Point not be tolerated?  If this was not way overboard, would Li Datong and Lu Yuegang, who have endured so many insults and injustices because they value the survival of media much more, have risen up and spoken out in anger?  To exile the righteous and the good can only allow evil proliferate, and make the new generation of power mongers even more unrestrained.

The Freezing Point incident arose from the issue of the Boxers, and this has great symbolic meaning.  Back then, the Empress Dowager eradicated the reform from within the system -- after the 1898 reform, she turned to using the unenlightened and the extreme among the people to hold up the wavering power structure.  History showed unmercifully that when rationality was pushed towards anger, when cooperation was pushed towards opposition and when reform was pushed towards revolution, how can there be peace for the nation and its people?

This year is the fifty anniversary of the "Let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools compete" policy and the Chinese Communist Party's Eighth Congress; it is also the fortieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution and the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Cultural Revolution.  Do not miss out this important opportunity from the historical point of view.  Do not refuse to face up to history based upon selfishness, shortsightedness and resignation.  Nobody can hope to muddle by in front of history.

For half a century from Binyan to Freezing Point, we have one hundred reasons to sigh, but we have one thousand reasons to believe -- to believe in the future.  "Lying here forever is this Chinese person, who did what he ought to do and said what he ought to say."  This is the epitaph that Binyan wanted for himself before he passed away.  His innumerable spiritual heirs will continue to bravely "say what they have to say" and "do what they have to do" firmly all the way through.