“My story is the unhappy experience of my country,” says Chinese scholar and one-time journalist Peter Liu, who is 78 years old. During an interview on a hot autumn day, however, his fierce eyes and firm voice hardly betray his ordeal. Liu Naiyuan, by his Chinese name, spent 21 years in Chinese labor camps, the laogai. Only in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping consolidated power after ousting the leaders of the chaotic Cultural Revolution, was Liu released and fully rehabilitated. Liu wrote a book in English about his tempestuous life, “Mirror: A Loss of Innocence in Mao’s China,” which was published in the United States in 2001. “Like a mirror, my tragic life reflects the life of the nation,” Liu observed.
Peter Liu, good-humored and brimming with optimism, spoke at length in his apartment in Beijing, explaining the circumstances that made his life a living hell for so many years. “The misfortune that befell my country in the ’50’s lasted three decades. I was a victim of the crackdown on so called ‘bourgeois rightists.’ Mao Zedong planted a booby trap, which he called a good plot.”
That “good plot” was the political campaign, “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” which got into full swing in April 1957. Mao and other Communist leaders, including late Premier Zhou Enlai, felt the party’s work since the start of the People’s Republic in 1949 had been so successful that it could take a little criticism. A general appeal for critical comments went out, and intellectuals around the country responded with unprecedented enthusiasm. Complaints poured in on every issue, from corruption within the party to control of artistic expression, from the unavailability of foreign literature to low standards of living. But, most of all, criticism focused on the monopoly of power of the Communist Party and the abuses that went with it. Very soon the party had second thoughts on the “hundred flowers” campaign and instead unleashed an anti-rightist campaign.
“I was one of the flowers. I spoke up,” Liu said. “A lot of things regarding the government I did not like eight years after the Communists took power. I touched a raw nerve in suggesting that the political leaders, most of them peasants before they enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army, should get a proper education. A good guerrilla commander was not going to make a good leader of a university or a government institution. If they refused to be educated, they should step down. China had to be rebuilt and was in need of capable leaders. Well, after I had reported a lot of shortcomings—mind you, I was invited to do so—I was called a criminal, a bourgeois. In French this word means citizen, but in Mao’s China it meant enemy of the people. Of course, I was not the only one. Because Mao very frequently gave instructions that five percent of the people were bad, by the end of 1958 some 550,000 Chinese were picked out to be labeled rightists.”
Trained as a Journalist
I got to know Peter Liu, who speaks English fluently, in the early 1990’s when I was a correspondent in Beijing for Dutch-language newspapers. The situation a decade ago in China was harsher than it is today. Chinese people, especially intellectuals, still had to be careful in their contacts with foreigners. Foreign journalists had to keep in mind that the Chinese they talked to might get into trouble. This was especially true after the dramatic developments in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Nevertheless, Peter and I got along well. During my eight-year stay, Peter frequently helped me to put developments in China into a broader perspective.
His “lectures” gave me a unique insight into several aspects of the country’s long history and the way Communist China was ruled. Having this independent knowledge available was a gift to me because, during the early 1990’s, the only information foreign correspondents would get was from rare press conferences by government officials or from the state-run media. It was very difficult to get facts and even harder to interpret developments. A lot of foreign correspondents also had fixed ideas about what was wrong with China and its rulers.
Peter Liu provided a well-considered countervailing power to all of this by giving me the pros and cons on all kinds of issues from domestic politics to Sino-foreign relations and China’s one-child policy. In talking about copyrights, for example, Liu explained that the Chinese attitude on this reached back to Imperial times when a painter or calligrapher became a master only when he was able to copy exactly the works of famous predecessors. In the Chinese mind, to copy is a quite honorable thing to do.
Peter Liu is an erudite man, a scion of a family of scholars. He and his three brothers were educated at a missionary school from the American Presbyterian Church. Liu went on to study English literature at St. John’s University in Shanghai.
In 1945 China was at the brink of civil war. The United States sided with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and sent General George Marshall to take part in a tripartite Mediation Committee. The American army employed Peter Liu as a translator in the mediation executive headquarters. A year later the civil war broke out and the executive headquaters was disbanded.
But Liu was lucky. Seymour Topping, a reporter in the Nanking bureau of International News Service (INS, one of the forerunners of UPI), needed a translator and hired him. “Later I became his assistant,” Liu told me. “He trained me to become a journalist. This was the critical period of the civil war. I principally reported on the progress of the ongoing struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists.” Liu also reported on the presidential elections which, according to Liu, were manipulated by Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist military and political leader. “Reporting was 2especially intense at the outbreak of emergent events, like the manuever by Chiang Kai-shek over his feigned resignation and the struggle of General Li Tsung-jen as acting president,” Liu says.
In May 1949, on the eve of the Communist takeover, Liu quit his INS reporting job. “The reason was that the Communists were very hostile to Americans because the massive military aid for the Nationalist government contributed to the loss of Communist lives. On the whole, brief as it was, mine was a turbulent and intersting journalistic career.”
Peter Liu favored the Communist takeover. He could have chosen to go to the United States. Or he could have cast his lot with the Nationalist government that fled to Taiwan. His life would have been quite different. “Since childhood, I was very patriotic. I loved my country, not the Nationalist Party, though, which was corrupt to the bone. I was convinced the Communists would change politics, eradicate corruption and poverty, and govern in the interest of the Chinese people. So I did stay on and welcomed the Communists with open arms. My country would have a bright future under Communist rule, I thought.”
He was enrolled as a student at a socalled revolutionary university. “In six months I finished with bad grades. They did not like me. I asked too many questions. Western journalists described these classes organized by the Communists as brainwashing institutions. It was the initial stage of the reeducation of Chinese intellectuals.” After he got his “revolutionary degree,” Liu had to study Russian and became a translator for Soviet experts in the army. In 1954 he asked to be demobilized. He was stationed as an education official in a poor district near Peking. In the momentous year 1957, when the “hundred flowers” campaign began, he was transferred to Xinhua, the New China News Agency.
Criticisms and Consequences
Peter Liu did not fit in with those who wanted to control ideology and constantly he was criticized. His independent mind, his “American” history, AUTHOR’S NOTE:
Seeking Help in the Search for Peter Liu’s Articles
Peter Liu worked as a journalist for International News Service (INS), a forerunner of United Press International. One of the things he regrets most is that he handed over all the clippings of his articles to party officials. He could not make copies. It would be very nice to dig up articles with his byline from American archives. I would like to ask anybody who has an idea how to unearth Liu’s articles to contact Peter Liu at firstname.lastname@example.org or Yvonne van der Heijden at email@example.com his family background all worked against him. In the summer of 1957—like all intellectuals and government functionaries—Liu was encouraged to tell what he thought were shortfalls of the Communist Party. He complied, but a fortnight later the wind changed, and those who were outspoken about the Communist Party’s shortcomings were denounced and labeled “bourgeois rightists.”
“I did everything to try to prove that I did not want to harm the party. But I ended up as a rightist of the worst category, which meant expulsion from work unit and loss of all rights of a citizen.” For 16 years, Peter Liu had to do manual labor—farm work such as tilling the earth, planting rice and other crops, digging canals and lakes. “In the end I was a grape care expert.” In 1974, he became a teacher at a labor camp middle school for the children of camp officers, and his life improved.
Liu recalls times of great despair. At some point he seriously considered taking his own life. In the end, he did not because he would die as a political prisoner and his relatives, his mother and his only daugther, Jane, would suffer the rest of their lives. He decided not to die as a coward and to bear the hardship. Now he is happy he lived on.
Peter Liu’s autobiography, with its very detailed account of harsh life in China under Mao’s rule, ends with his release in 1979. In the early 1980’s, his life took another dramatic turn, this time in a welcomed direction. He met his current wife, Yu Qin, a middleschool teacher of English who also suffered untold harassment at the hands of the Communist Party. They started a new life together. Listening to Peter Liu is not like listening to a bitter man. His humor and optimism were probably the keys to his survival. He credits Yu Qin for the renewed zest for life he has acquired. “Some of my friends tell me my turbulent life is unfortunate. I agree that my life has had its bitter days. And I suffered a lot. I did. But nothing can be done about it. And it is better to experience misfortune in the beginning of your life and fortune later, then the other way around.”
Yvonne van der Heijden, a 1986 Nieman Fellow, was a correspondent in Beijing with the Netherlands Press Association and the Financial Economic Times of Belgium from 1991-1999. Currently, she is working as a freelance journalist based in Loon op Zand, the Netherlands. Liu’s book, “Mirror: A Loss of Innocence in Mao’s China,” was published by Xlibris Corporation and can be ordered at www.Xlibris.com.