Chinese journalist Liu Binyan joined the Nieman Class of 1989 at age 62, after he became a target of the Chinese government’s campaign against “bourgeois liberalism.” Binyan was a writer for the People’s Daily at the time, and his work often dealt with rampant corruption throughout the country. When the military opened fire on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square at the end of his Nieman year, Binyan openly condemned the massacre. China blacklisted him, and he was not allowed to return to his home country. He lived in exile in the United States until his death in December 2005. According to his wife, Zhu Hong, he asked that his epitaph read: “Here lies a Chinese person who did some things that it was right for him to do, and said some things that were right that a person say.”
In the Spring 1992 issue of Nieman Reports, Binyan wrote about the culture of China’s newsrooms after Mao’s 1949 revolution. In particular, he notes the events at Tiananmen Square rolled back reforms achieved in the previous decade:
In the spring of 1989, after 10 years of persistent struggle, press freedom in China reached its peak. Many subjects that had been prohibited were allowed to appear in print. Many journalists openly confronted the government’s decision to build the dam at Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, a project which was approved by the highest authorities even though it was damaging to the environment and disruptive to the lives of over a million people. In the democracy movement of the same year, the Chinese newspapers, for a short time in May, 1989, were able to report the true facts about an anti-government movement, which was unprecedented since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The journalists also were the first among Beijing intellectuals to join the ranks of students in huge demonstrations on the streets.
After the crackdown on the democracy movement on June 4, 1989, a “dark age” once more descended over the mass media in Beijing. Newspapers and broadcasting stations are not allowed any independence. Every article, every broadcast must follow the party line. Many journalists were arrested and sentenced to jail. Many were fired from their jobs and cannot continue to practice journalism any more. Those who still retain their jobs cannot write and edit according to their own judgment, but there are still a few who manage to convey true information to the readers in a subtle, roundabout way, which is difficult and risky.
Nevertheless, it should be stressed that, starting from the early 80’s, a new generation of journalists emerged. They had grown up during the Cultural Revolution when, because of factional struggles, the party’s control over ideology was considerably weakened. After the Cultural Revolution, they enrolled in colleges when the country was opening up and economic reform was underway. Many of them are college graduates, exposed to Western influence; the party ideology has much less impact on them than on their elders. Therefore they are more courageous in challenging the party’s control. An example of this increasing boldness occurred in 1986, when some young journalists at a newspaper in a Special Economic Zone, The Shenzhen Youth News, managed to shake off party control and made the newspaper independent. In the party’s chief organ, People’s Daily, young reporters and editors made up almost half of the entire editorial staff. They were the main force in pushing for press freedom and liberation of People ‘s Daily. Naturally, they were the most persecuted after the 1989 crackdown.
Because of intensified political pressure after June 4, the readers have become more apolitical. The journalists have become more and more despondent and frustrated. They feel that they cannot truly practice their profession and have turned their attention to their own personal well being and material interests. Some reporters receive payments from various industries for covering their “achievements”, a subtle, yet much more efficient, way of advertising. Political pressure and material temptation act together as closes of soul erosion for the journalists. They care less and less about the future of their paper and the future of journalism in China. This is exactly the effect that the Chinese Communist Party hopes for.
Read Liu Binyan’s full article, “In Beijing’s Newsrooms”
More from Nieman Reports:
In the Spring 2005 issue, Nieman Fellows Juntao Wang and Xiaoping Chen wrote an appreciation of Liu Binyan, whom they called “China’s Conscience”
In the Winter 2014 issue, Nieman Fellow Yang Xiao wrote about the linguistic tricks employed by Chinese journalists to get around press restrictions on writing about Tiananmen