demise of the shenzhen youth herald

In April this year, Cao Changqing (曹长青 who now operates an influential Chinese language news source) posted “Bo Xilai’s Father Destroyed the Shenzhen Youth Herald (薄熙来父亲灭掉《深圳青年报》)” to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the closing of the Shenzhen newspaper, where he began his career in journalism. The post was prompted by a conversations with Yan Jiaqi (严家其), who had been the Head of the Politics Department, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社科院政治所长) during the 1986-87 student movement and was an advisor to both Hu Yaobang and his successor, Zhao Ziyang. Indeed, Yan Jiaqi himself would flee to Paris after his support of student protests in the 1989 democracy movement.

In the early years of reform, the Shenzhen Youth Herald was, along with Shanghai’s World Economic Herald (世界经济导报), one of the two most independent newspapers in China. Consequently, despite being a small newspaper, the Youth Herald had a national subscription base, providing Chinese intellectuals a platform for debating progressive ideas and evaluating ongoing experiments in reform Chinese society. On October 21, 1986, for example, the newspaper printed Qian Chaoying (钱超英)’s contraversial opinion piece, “I Support Commerade Xiaoping’s Decision to Retire (我赞成小平同志退休)”.

In the manner of traditional intellectuals, Shenzhen University professor of literature, Qian Chaoying’s writing style was sincere and humble, but the content was unmistakably radical. Moreover, the piece drew directly on and from Shenzhen’s experience, asking: Why must the People show our sincere and deep feelings for Deng Xiaoping by sacrificing further reform of the political system (为什么表达人民对小平同志纯朴深挚的普遍感情,就非要以延缓政治体制改革的进程为代价不可呢)? On Qian’s reading, Deng’s retirement would allow China to reflect on and establish a more just political system, a system that was more in keeping with the needs of reform, rather than a return to the cult politics, which had characterized the Cultural Revolution glorification of Mao Zedong.

Yan told Cao that Bo Yibo (薄一波, Bo Xilai’s father and one of the Eight Elders of the CCP) was not only furious about the opinion piece, but had also approached it as an attack the power of older and already retired leaders. During a meeting on political reform, Bo Yibo participated as a consultant. Zhao Ziyang was talking about the opinion piece with Peng Chong (彭冲). Upon overhearing the conversation, Bo Yibo became livid and is reported to have screamed at the younger leaders, “You are already fifty, sixty and seventy years old. We won’t die and you won’t rise (你们也五十六、七岁了吧?我们不死,你们也上不来).” Hu Qili (胡启立) was apparently so frightened that he immediately showed his support for the elders, wishing that the the old leaders of the proletarian revolution would live to a healthy old age (我们希望老一代的无产阶级革命家健康长寿). Importantly, at that closed meeting, Bo Yibo called for the Party to investigate who had written and the newspaper that had published the opinion piece. The word used, zhuicha (追查) meant to find out who Qian Chaoying was speaking for. Bo Yibo assumed that neither Qian Chaoying, nor the Youth Herald was acting as an independent voice, but rather was acting on behalf of one of the young reformers, most likely Hu Yaobang.

The opinion piece was published at a critical time in Central politics. Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Deng Xiaoping’s “right and left hands” were pushing for further political liberalization. Less, than two months after the letter was published, students organized public protests across over a dozen cities in support of political and economic liberalization. Astrophysicist, Fang Lizhi (方励之) led the protests, calling for introducing political reforms that would ultimately end the one-Party system and the continuing use of government as an instrument of Party policy. Two other intellectuals, Wang Ruowang (王若望) and Liu Binyan (刘宾雁) also led the intellectuals. It is said that Deng disliked Fang, Wang, and Liu, directing Hu to dismiss them from the Party, but Hu refused. In the fallout, Hu was forced into retirement because it was said he had been too lenient with student protestors. The Shenzhen Youth Herald was also one of the victims of the 1987 crackdown. The Shenzhen Youth Herald was closed and Cao Changqing banned for life from working in journalism at the same time that Hu Yaobang was forced into retirement. Two years later, the Tian’anmen protests would begin when students gathered to eulogize Hu Yaobang. The now defunct World Economic Herald published an article supporting the students’ call to re-evaluate Hu’s legacy.

what i realized this june 4

On June 4, 1989, I was in Japan. That year, I had been diligently learning Japanese pronunciations for Chinese characters and memorizing [subject]-time-place-object-verb sentence patterns. The Chinese democracy movement, the call for transparent and clean governance, and the military crackdown came to me filtered through Japanese television because CNN was not yet global. Only after the fact would I learn about the two month build-up to the sight of tanks grinding through the Beijing streets. It took me years to understand the significance of Shenzhen reforms to inspiring the movement as well as how the crackdown unmade many of the political reforms, culminating in the 1992 Southern Tour, when Deng Xiaoping announced that economic liberalization would continue. Political liberalization would emerge piecemeal and in unexpected places, but no longer with the hopeful momentum of the early 80s.

Nevertheless, over the past years, I have noticed that my knowledge of events has been less important than the nitty gritty of everyday life in transforming June 4 into a meaningful symbol.

On Saturday, for example, I went to a coffee shop, where a man was lying on the ground, hands clawed, some kind of froth at his mouth, trembling. Two guards stood and another man sat, watching. I asked if an ambulance had been called. They answered, yes and I went into the coffee shop. Over twenty minutes later when I came out to look for someone, the man was still on the ground and no help to be seen. This time, I dialed 120 and connected with a dispatcher, asking a former student to explain what was happening. This decision disturbed the watchers who explained that the man was a thief and that he had faked a seizure when the guards had caught him. Moreover, according to the guards he frequently came by and stole things. The guards seemed less concerned about the man then they did about being seen not taking care of him. They stopped me from taking a picture and, when help did finally arrive, they kept repeating, “There’s nothing to see,” and pushed people away.

I left the coffee shop, came home, jumped online, and saw blog posts and articles on June 4, which caused me to make sense of the incident in larger, cultural terms. “China is a place where dissatisfaction with the regime or petty thievery can cost a human life,” I thought, “therefore people tend to be cynical and to ignore the suffering of strangers.” The coffee shop incident also allowed me to hear Chinese leaders repeating to other world leaders and journalists, “There’s nothing to be seen.” Consequently, my anger at the coffee shop guards grew into a nightlong bout of “what the fuck am I doing in China?” These were not happy or useful thoughts. Instead, as the anger cooled, I realized that I had argued with the guards about what should be done and our different values (them bad, me good). In retrospect, however, what is clear is that in actual practice our values were the same — we became increasingly angry with each other rather than wiping the froth at the man’s mouth or placing a pillow under his head.

This was not the first time that my sense of outrage has led me to fight with others rather than to comfort a suffering being. Consequently, June 4 this year, I listened to Pema Chodron‘s teaching on Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva in hope that by working with and through my anger, I will achieve something of the revolutionary patience necessary to change the world:

The hostile multitudes are vast as space –
What chance is there that all should be subdued?
Let but this angry mind be overthrown
And every foe is then and there destroyed.