As a secondary school student in pre-revolutionary China, Liu Binyan was bored by classes in the Confucian classics and would secretly read books of his own choosing at his desk in the back of the schoolroom.
Russian writers were his favorites--Gorki, Tolstoy, Dostoevski and Turgenev in particular. They satisfied his rebellious spirit and yearnings for social justice in a way that the time-honored writings of Confucius never could.
"From them I learned the concept of human rights and sympathy for the poor and suffering," he says. "From them I also learned what my mission would be as a writer: to struggle for the common people."
They were lessons he has never forgotten. Since starting out in life as a journalist more than 40 years ago, the 65-year-old writer and intellectual has been a fearless and unflagging defender of human rights and champion for the downtrodden and dispossessed.
His works, written in a style that blends the techniques of the novelist with the subject matter of the muckraking reporter, have chronicled the dark side of Communism in China: the pervasive venality and duplicity of the ruling cliques, the corrosive spirit of blind obedience fostered by the Communist Party and the wide-scale perversion of the ideals of the Communist Revolution.
He has paid heavily for daring to write about such unpleasant truths. He has spent more than two decades in internal exile in the Chinese countryside for "counterrevolutionary" activities. He has twice been expelled from the Communist Party. His works have been officially banned.
And last year, in the most crushing blow of all, he was forced into involuntary and indefinite exile during a visit to the United States--a victim of the crackdown on leading dissidents and intellectuals after the student uprising in Beijing's Tian An Men Square.
But he refuses to knuckle under to the system. With characteristic boldness, he has just come out with a new book, a memoir titled "A Higher Kind of Loyalty," published in English translation by Pantheon Books. It was written during a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. He lives in Hartford, Conn., where he teaches at Trinity College.
The book is vintage Liu. It is at once a searing indictment of the Communist system in China, recounting in often disquieting detail the price Liu and others like him have paid for their dissent. At the same time, like all the major works he has written since joining the party and becoming a journalist, it is offered in the spirit of one who sees himself as a kind of loyal opposition.
Call it quixotic or unbelievably naive, Liu seems to believe that given the light--however harshly it shines on them--China's leaders will see the way and will right all the wrongs of the past four decades.
"I still keep hope," he says through his wife, Zhu Hong, who acted as his interpreter during a recent visit to New York to publicize his book. "I still believe in them, although to a lesser and lesser extent with each passing year."
He maintains such optimism, even while he argues in his book: "The handful of octogenarians and the privileged bureaucratic clique whom they represent will neither change their ways nor hand over power. Thus they are doomed to destruction."
This love-hate relationship with the Communist Party has been characteristic of Liu ever since he cast his lot with the Communists during World War II, feeling that they, more than the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, offered the road to the liberation of China.
As he relates in his book, he first hooked up with the Communists as part of the anti-Japanese resistance movement in Manchuria in 1943. Shortly afterward, he experienced the first major clash between his natural sympathies and the dictates of the Communist Party.
He was harshly reprimanded for not shunning a tubercular former comrade who was expelled from the Communist underground for having had premarital sexual relations with a woman who had acted as his nurse. Even more seriously, he was accused of having divulged to her the group's political identity.
"I wondered whether he had been punished too harshly," Liu writes. "I did not think of the relationship . . . as anything sordid: I thought it very natural, and I quite sympathized with them."
Still, he decided to be firm with himself: "I laid down a rule for myself: Save your love and sympathy for the entire working class, rather than wasting it on individual suffering; beware of the words of any individual, but have absolute faith in the party."
Looking at that incident from the vantage point of almost half a decade, Liu says that in those days he was naive and very idealistic. Sacrifices would have to be made, despite personal feelings.
In 1949, not long after the Communists under Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic, Liu decided to become a reporter and got a job as an editor and writer with the China Youth News, one of several newly established periodicals based on models from the Soviet Union.
He admits in his memoir that he had his reservations about the Communist takeover of China. With the success of the revolution, he says, he felt there might come a loss of individual freedom.
For five years, he worked at the paper, pumping out the standard articles praising the glories of the revolution and the achievements of the workers and peasants under the new regime. But then, dissatisfied with the monotony of such reports, he wrote the first article that broke from the mold and set the pattern for the distinct style of journalism he has generally followed ever since.
It was a story about Yang Youde, a maverick factory worker who tried to think for himself and searched for more productive ways of doing things but was penalized for his efforts. For Liu, Yang represented what he had been searching for: "the man who is not afraid to differ." He had hoped that by writing Yang's story, the factory worker's qualities would be praised and emulated.
"It was only after several years that I realized this was impossible," he writes. "In the early '50s, urban factories were filled with young peasants from the countryside who, for the first time, received a fixed salary in cash and had full stomachs. They were very satisfied and eager to keep their jobs. It was futile to expect them, uneducated and rather narrow in their vision, to act like Yang."
In 1955, Liu was charged with an "anti-party stance." But the case was tossed out after it was discovered that the accusations were based on forged documents. Nevertheless, Liu felt as if the incident proved that the party was "really more reliable than ever."
After regaining his freedom to work, he went on an assignment and wrote the story "On the Dam Construction Site," which was the first article in the new style of "literary reportage" he devised, combining literary techniques and muckraking subject matter.
It was published in 1956 in the prestigious national journal People's Literature. It contrasted two emblematic figures, Zeng Gang, a young, idealistic engineer who boldly took action to save a section of an uncompleted bridge during a flood without waiting for party orders, and Lo Lizheng, who in fear of making a mistake, took no initiative and allowed massive destruction to take place on his section of the project. Zeng was demoted by party officials, while Lo remained in office uncriticized.
Liu followed up this article with another, called "Inside Story," which was a semi-autobiographical piece about an idealistic young woman reporter who struggled against the inertia at the paper for which she worked.
The public response to this story was even more enthusiastic than to "On the Dam Construction Site," but the opposition also was more ferocious.
In 1957, during the "anti-rightist" campaign that signaled an end to the openness of Mao's "hundred flowers" movement of the previous year, Liu found himself charged with counterrevolutionary activities and was sent to work with peasants in the Shanxi and Shandong provinces.
These three years of labor reform were followed by a year of dragging human excrement through the streets of Beijing.
Liu, who always tries to look on the bright side of things, now says that those years taught him something he might never have learned.
"I had always tried to communicate with workers and peasants when I was traveling on trains to assignment," he says. "But I always found it very difficult, because we did not speak the same language or have the same interests. But after that experience, I learned what the life of the poor people is like, just like the Russian writers I admired. It was the first time I was able to see directly how peasants were living and working in China. I was very surprised, for example, to learn that they often didn't even have cooking oil."
It was not until March, 1966, that the "rightist" label pinned on him in 1957 was removed, but his party membership was not restored until many years later. And in June, 1966, he walked into work one day to see a poster saying: "Liu Binyan Has Not Retreated From His Anti-Rightist Stand."
After his wife and son were forced to denounce him, he was carted off to the countryside to a re-education camp. It was during this period that Liu came the closest he has ever come to suicide, because he was also was accused of being a Soviet agent. But he pulled back from taking his life, feeling that if he did so, it would only reinforce the false beliefs that he was involved in espionage.
Liu was not able to resume writing until 1979. But once again, he forgave the party its excesses and set about to right the wrongs he thought needed righting. He soon published a piece called "People or Monsters?" about the biggest case of embezzlement of public funds since the founding of the People's Republic.
The story, which was published by People's Literature in September, 1979, hit China like a storm. Liu became a popular hero. Some people even began referring to him as Liu Qingtian, or Liu the Just, after an upright Song dynasty figure, Bao Qingtian.
In November, he left China Youth News and moved to the People's Daily, the official Party newspaper.
But for all his popular acclaim, he still had enemies within the ranks of the official class. The party and Deng Xiaoping never were sympathetic with the sentiments expressed by Liu in an article he wrote in 1985 entitled "A Second Kind of Loyalty."
In 1987, as another period of reform was brought to a close, Liu was stripped of his party membership for a second time. Later, at the request of the American journalist Harrison Salisbury, he and his wife were permitted to visit Europe and the United States.
It was on a television set that Liu saw the massacre in Tian An Men Square last year--an event that marked the beginning of his involuntary exile. If he were to return now, he says, he would almost certainly be arrested.
Now, as he says, in his book, "I am an alien in a land that does not belong to me."
Still, he remains optimistic that the political winds in China may change again and he will be permitted to return.
"In China, things are constantly changing," he says. "I think the time will come when I can go back. Right now, it's impossible. But I think it will be much sooner than many people expect."
And will he continue to speak out against what he sees as the injustices of the system?
"I cannot imagine that I would do anything else," he says.