China: 10 Years After Tiananmen FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Liu Binyan, Journalist

In 1989, Liu Binyan, then China's most prominent journalist, was a Neiman fellow at Harvard University. He was not permitted to return to China. Since September 1989, as part of the Princeton China Initiative, he has compiled, edited, and published China Focus, a monthly newsletter analyzing political and economic issues. In 1990, Liu published his autobiography, A Higher Kind of Loyalty, and another book, China's Crisis, China's Hope.

1. What impact if any, do you think the student movement had on changes that have taken place in China up to now on issues ranging from, for example, personal freedoms, openness of the political system, and tolerance for dissent?

One of the important reasons for the Tiananmen Movement's failure is that at the peak of the movement, both the students and the government had some illusions. The government felt for the first time ever as if it were on the verge of being toppled; the student leaders thought once the government sent troops to the Square, the whole nation would rise up to their call, thus leading to the collapses of the government.

But neither of these two illusions were true. The massacre and the ensuing large-scale arrests and purging resulted in the annihilation of the democratic forces, and the fruits achieved through the years of struggle to gain freedom in some fields were all gone.

Deng Xiaoping's tactics of buying social stability with money succeeded; the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European countries, which had encouraged the Chinese people to struggle for democracy, began to have a negative effect in the nineties. Some Chinese even thought that the failure of the Tiananmen Movement had prevented the chaos that was happening in these other countries.

The personal freedom enjoyed by the Chinese people had undergone considerable expansion in the nineties. This was the result of the spontaneous changes that happened during the process of economic reform. It was also the result of the efforts of the Communist Party to divert people's concerns from politics.

One positive effect of the Tiananmen Movement is that it made the Chinese people realize their own political potential. We also need to draw lessons from its failure.

2. Thinking about it now, do you think what the students, and later the workers and others, were asking the government to do was what they should have been asking? What would you have asked?

The cause for the failure of the Movement was that the participants did not fully understand the true situation in China nor its history since the founding of the People's Republic. If I had gone back to China in 1989, I would have told the students that democracy could not be obtained in one movement, and that only limited goals could be achieved. I would have tried to persuade the students to use correct strategies and tactics, to negotiate with the government in mid-May, and to withdraw from the Square, though it is unpredictable whether I would have been able to convince them.

3. What do you think of the strategies and tactics the students, workers, and others employed? Looking back, do you think they were appropriate? With the advantage of hindsight, how would you change them?

The greatest mistake of the students was that they refused any compromise. They did not know the necessity of cooperating with the reformist forces within the Party, thus making all Zhao Ziyang's efforts fail so that Zhao had to resign. Their contempt for the workers and peasants was shocking. They almost never made efforts to win over the workers but on the contrary refused their participation. In mid-May they turned over two teachers from Hunan province who splashed ink on Mao's portrait to the police to show that they were not radicals. These two facts show that their own safety was their first priority. If we look at the power struggles in the Square and their performance in exile, we will realize that many of the leaders are too self-centered.

4. What part do you think intellectuals played in the movement? What part do you think they should have played?

The intellectuals should assume the chief responsibility. Since the eighties, intellectuals have put too much emphasis on their own work and study and distanced themselves further and further from the reality of society. They did not impart knowledge about history and reality to the young students. At the same time, the lack of commitment and the lack of premonition about possible eruption of social crises made them totally unprepared for the coming turmoil. Therefore, they could not provide much needed ideas, theory, strategy, and tactics to the masses.

5. Based on your experiences from 1989 until now, if you could ask one thing of the current government in China, what would it be?

I would want to tell the government to judge the hour and size up the situation. If they don't want China to be bogged down in chaos, they should allow freedom of association as ensured by the constitution, and let the exiles return to the country. The Communist Party must first guarantee democracy within the Party.

6. If you were advising Chinese students today on how to bring about support for human rights improvements and democratic change, what would you tell them?

I want to tell them that they must be highly vigilant toward the new conservative forces -- the nouveau riche and the intellectual elites who having benefitted from the reform, became the ardent defenders of the regime. They advocate "gradual progress in a peaceful way," actually attempting to stabilize the state of passiveness and inactivity. This has the most harmful impact on the people. The problems have become much more complicated than in the eighties. We must go to the workers and peasants, make use of all legal measures to organize the masses to claim their rights and protect their security and to improve the social environment, and, during the process, change people's apathy toward the society, cultivate the ability to lead democratic lives, and develop autonomy in society.

7. Where has the June 4 movement left you personally?

In 1989 and the ensuing period, I was too optimistic about the situation in China. I never thought that the temptation of money and goods could have such an impact on Chinese people. I had also placed too high hopes on intellectuals and the reformist forces within the Party.

8. If you are in contact with any of your colleagues who remained in China, do you know what kind of impact their participation in Tiananmen Square has had on their lives?

As far as I know, my friends in China, as well as those in exile, have not really drawn lessons from the 1989 Movement. Apathy toward politics is fairly widespread. But now we see a new force emerging among the young intellectuals who are much more highly critical and have a much more penetrating understanding of the society. In them I see hope for China.

9. Please tell us a little about yourself.

I joined the Communist Party in 1994. In 1951, I began my career in journalism. For advocating press freedom and muckraking, I was condemned as a Rightist in 1957, and was deprived of my work as a journalist. Twenty-two years later I was rehabilitated and was able to resume my work. For the same reason, I was again expelled from the Party in 1987. In 1988 I came to the U.S., intending to return in 1989.