Liu Binyan, 80; Chinese Writer, Intellectual Was Exiled After Uprising in Tiananmen Square

Times Staff Writer

Liu Binyan, the Chinese writer and intellectual who was stranded in the United States by China’s 1989 crackdown on dissidents after the student pro-democracy uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, has died. He was 80.

Liu died Monday of colon cancer at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., said Cecilia Alvear, who was a Nieman Fellow with Liu at Harvard University.

Then China’s most prominent journalist, Liu was participating in the Nieman program for writers in Cambridge, Mass., when the bloody confrontation between students and the Chinese government occurred.

Communist leaders, who were frequently at odds with Liu over his critical writing, seized on the uprising to bar his return to China and force him into exile.


In 1990, Liu published “A Higher Kind of Loyalty: A Memoir,” which was based on a 1985 article with the same title. “There are two kinds of loyalties in this world,” he wrote. “One is exposed to risks, while the other is safe.”

David Treadwell, reviewing the book for The Times, called it “vintage Liu” and said: “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.”

But the work that established Liu as an internationally respected writer was his “People or Monsters?” First published in the prestigious Chinese national journal People’s Literature in 1979, it gained wider prestige when it was re-published by Indiana University Press as the title article in a book-length collection of his work in 1982.

Blending the technique of the novelist with the subject matter of the muckraking reporter, “People or Monsters?” was a carefully researched expose of a corrupt cashier who became an oppressive party leader in northeastern China. The piece helped make Liu one of China’s best-known and most admired writers, and earned him the nickname “Liu the Just.”


Liu went on to write a series of works that criticized systemic local corruption within the Communist Party and the party’s insistence on absolute obedience.

“Liu is very strong underneath and the relaxed attitude he displays is the result of weathering pretty strong storms in his life,” Perry Link, a longtime friend and professor of contemporary Chinese literature formerly at UCLA and now at Princeton, told The Times in 1988 when Liu taught briefly at UCLA. “He’s a battle-ax. He’s dedicated to his principles, most of which are dedicated to telling the truth, the unvarnished truth about society.”

Born the son of a railway worker on Jan. 15, 1925, in Changchun, Liu attended school only through the ninth grade but developed a passion for words. He taught himself to read English, Japanese and Russian. He read Karl Marx, which led him to join the underground Communist Party of China in 1944.

He also read the Russian writers Gorki, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev.


“From them I learned the concept of human rights and sympathy for the poor and suffering,” he told The Times in 1990. “From them I also learned what my mission would be as a writer: to struggle for the common people.”

Liu began his career as a teacher in Tianjin and then was a youth worker in Harbin. After the Communists took power in 1949, he moved to Beijing where he worked as an editor, investigative reporter and party secretary of the China Youth News for much of the 1950s.

In 1956, Liu published two articles in People’s Literature that focused on corruption at a bridge construction site and on censorship at a newspaper. Within a year, Liu was charged with counterrevolutionary activities, branded a rightist, ousted from the party and sent to work with peasants in the fields.

During Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution, he was wrongly denounced as a Soviet agent and spent eight years in a labor camp. That experience drove him to consider suicide.


Rehabilitated and once again allowed to write, Liu became a reporter for the People’s Daily in 1979. He wrote prolifically until 1987 when he was stripped of party membership anew and again silenced. That ouster made him more popular than ever.

Detailing Liu’s life in a 2003 Asian edition of Time magazine, Link wrote: “Over ... four decades, [China’s] leaders successively denounced him, sent him to the mountains, split him from his family, ‘re-educated him,’ ‘pardoned’ him, readmitted him, re-denounced him, re-expelled him and finally forced him into permanent exile.”

When Liu arrived in Los Angeles in 1988 shortly after his second party expulsion, he told The Times he believed that Communist leaders had permitted his travel to Europe and the United States because “they think it has benefits for them.... It shows the Chinese government is enlightened.”

In the United States, Liu worked briefly as a writer-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and wrote articles about justice and politics in China for the Hong Kong press. He also broadcast to China over the American-funded Radio Free Asia.


Liu is survived by his wife, Zhu Hong, who lived with him in East Windsor, N.J.; a son, Dahong, and daughter Xiaoyan, who live in China, and two grandchildren.

The funeral is private, but a public memorial service will be planned for a later date.

Until the end of his life, Liu hoped to return to China. As he told The Times long ago: “In China, things are constantly changing. I think the time will come when I can go back.”

Alvear said Liu will be cremated, and his ashes will be taken to China.