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Looking back on Democracy Wall

Xu Wenli: How Chinese dissidents and the Communist Party use the Western media

Before blogs, there was Democracy Wall; image from ESWN

Is Western media coverage of dissidents and their activities good for them or for China? What have Chinese dissidents learned from the Communist Party about using the Western media?

The introduction and translated interview below are by Andrew Chubb, who completed an honours thesis at the University of Western Australia on the impact of foreign correspondents in China during the Democracy Wall period.

His research included interviews with several participants in the events, such Xu Wenli, the subject of the interview published here. He says his overall conclusion about the foreign journalists' impact were that they "helped Deng Xiaoping take control of the Party, and probably hastened the Democracy Wall Movement's suppression".

Stop press: Oddly enough, as Danwei was preparing to publish this story, one of the other key figures in the Democracy Wall movement, Qin Yongmin was reported to have been released after a 12 year stay in prison.

Xu Wenli and Chinese activists' relations with Western journalists

by Andrew Chubb

The Democracy Wall period (1978-1979) can be seen as the start of the post-1949 Chinese democracy movement

It started with a wave of handwritten posters (dazibao) glued to walls in Beijing in late 1978. One stretch of wall at the busy intersection of Chang'an Avenue and Xidan Street was dubbed ‘Democracy Wall’. While personal stories of injustice were the most common content, some addressed political topics. At first this mainly involved expressing support for Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping and the Party’s proponents of “reform and opening up”, but numerous writers branched out into vigorous theoretical discussions. The most active participants even formed their own organizations to publish unofficial journals and news-sheets.

Xu Wenli was an editor and organizer of the April Fourth Forum, one of the best-known of these unofficial publications (the name refers to the 1976 Tiananmen Incident). He was jailed in 1981 for “counterrevolutionary” activity, despite maintaining his allegiance to Marxism and socialism. After his release from prison, Xu helped found the China Democracy Party, for which he was again jailed in 1998. He has lived in exile in the United States since he was granted ‘medical parole’ to travel there in 2002. Here he discusses Western journalists and the Democracy Wall Movement.

In 1978, how did the activists see the Western journalists on the scene at the Xidan Democracy Wall?

Many of the Chinese intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s who pursued freedom and democracy had studied abroad and had experience living overseas, so they saw relations with the Western media as quite normal and nothing to be afraid of.

For us in 1978 it was quite taboo. At that time in China, the people kept silent out of fear.
[1] The CCP made a lot of demonizing descriptions of the West, pinning all [Western countries’] past unfairness towards Chinese people and society on Western people as a whole. There was also the suspicion that Western journalists were spies. All this made people very afraid. So in 1978, the relationship between Chinese dissidents [2] and the Western media became extremely interesting.

To give the background, Mao Zedong and other Communist Party leaders understood well how to use the media. They managed to get people like Edgar Snow to visit Yan’an, who then magnified their success and their fake democracy, eventually convincing the whole world that only the CCP’s area, the so-called liberated zone, was democratic, and that the Chiang Kai-shek-led “KMT-ruled zone” was the most dictatorial and undemocratic. On this point the CCP was very smart, crafty, and when we use the word liyong [3] (to exploit), we are referring to their experience. I don’t believe everyone adopts an attitude of liyong.

But if you want to address the public you cannot possibly do it completely by yourself, you need to use [4] a medium.

The young dissidents in 1978 were mostly workers, myself included, so they hadn’t undergone higher-level education. But they had been influenced by the CCP’s ingenious methods of exploiting media, so they paid great attention to their relationships with the Western media.

What did you personally make of this at the time?

We knew that only through the Western media could we let the world understand and know about us. There was also the idea that through them, [what we said] could be reflected up to the CCP leadership – as the traditional saying goes, “export goods for domestic consumption”. [5]

Because if the Western media, for example the New York Times, publishes something, the Chinese government will definitely take note. China’s leaders sometimes don’t read Chinese newspapers, but they will definitely, if they understand English, read the New York Times or get their staff to translate it into Chinese for them.

The Central Party leaders had two extremely thorough Reference News bulletins [6], one in the morning and one in the afternoon – every day the Party was putting out two of these magazine-thickness things. The dissidents all knew this so they wanted to, through the voice of the Western media, influence the high levels of the CCP leadership via “exporting goods for domestic consumption”.

So the activists were all very clear about this? Were you thinking about this when you were being interviewed by Western journalists?

Of course. In some sense it was very much on our own initiative, due to the fact that the Chinese media couldn’t possibly report our voices and the Western media could. There was also another level, perhaps a sub-conscious sense that having reports of international opinion and attention was a definite advantage in terms of your personal political life and safety.

Before the Democracy Wall period, they could arrest anyone they wanted without publicizing it. But those who had been in contact with Western media, if they didn’t appear for a few days people would say, “Hey, where have they gone?” So arresting activists became something they couldn’t conceal, like that day Ren Wanding and his associates were arrested while putting up a big-character poster, when the French journalist Francis Deron took that photo of him having his arm twisted behind his back by plain-clothes policemen. Although journalists like to be there, capturing these powerful news scenes and events, dissidents can also capture these scenes by having foreign journalists present.

Was there any negative impact as a result of these contacts? For example, if you were reported in the foreign media, wouldn’t this let the regime know about your activities and your dissident views?

There was nothing to be afraid of there. For us, these things were almost 100 percent transparent. It was impossible that they wouldn’t already know. In my trial I found out they had even recorded when I came downstairs to take the rubbish out each day, and afterwards who had walked with me, including foreign journalists. They knew all this.

Nothing was secret from them, so we weren’t afraid of Western journalists exposing us by reporting these things.

Did your thinking at the time include having your voices bounce back to China through the BBC or Voice of America?

Of course. That’s also “export goods for domestic consumption”. The saying has two levels of meaning, one is addressing the leaders, the other is addressing the public in China. Many people listened to the BBC, Radio France Internationale and the Voice of America, and later Radio Free Asia, and these could reflect what we said back to China.

In 1978-1979?

Yes, that’s what I mean. Even in 1978 we at least knew there was the BBC, Radio France Internationale and VOA.

Was this useful or effective? If so, how do you know this was the case?

It was greatly useful and greatly effective, because we had no way of using the Chinese media. Through Democracy Wall we were able to publish our articles and let some of the public know about us. But it was extremely limited, basically its influence was mainly limited to Beijing, although there were some subscribers elsewhere. The April Fourth Forum’s most distant subscriber was a person in Tibet. There was no-one from Xinjiang, but we had subscribers in all the other provinces, and foreign students from all different countries, and some staff in foreign embassies. But the numbers and influence were very small, so using the Western media was most convenient way of amplifying this.

Their broadcasts could tell people our names, our addresses, even our telephone numbers, and our opinions. Many remote places were reached via this method. People who cared about politics, progress and democratic development in China, spent a lot of time secretly listening to “enemy stations”, to use the CCP's parlance. During the Cultural Revolution you would get a very heavy prison sentence for that, later you could expect reform through labor. By the 1980s it basically wasn't a crime anymore.

In the 1960s, students, or people who had studied some physics, knew that you could make a radio from a pair of headphones, and listen to “enemy stations”. Also, the signal was clearer in more remote places, as the government’s jamming became weaker. A great friend of mine to this day who lived in Guizhou heard about me through the VOA and later contacted me. There was also someone in Inner Mongolia. So we know this was the case for sure.

When I went back to my alma mater in the 1990s, one of my teachers told me they heard about me from the VOA, RFI and later RFA. They also heard about me being arrested, and later that I had been sentenced. They said they knew when they heard the name that it was me because I had been so naughty at school!

After my release from jail in the 1990s, the Chinese government publicly referred to me as a convicted criminal who had served out his sentence. When I heard this I was angry, so when I did my next interview with a foreign journalist, I said: “If the Chinese government or their leaders or spokespersons continue to call me this name, I will add a prefix to Premier Zhu Rongji's name – ‘Former Rightist and Current PRC Premier Zhu Rongji’. If Mr Zhu is happy with this, then they can continue to refer to me as they have. If he is not happy with this, I hope they will cease.” Afterwards they stopped calling me that.

How aware of this were you when you started your political activities?

It’s hard to speak for others, but I personally wanted to use these methods, so you could say that in some sense it was intentional. I think there were two main aspects to it. One, I’m not sure about other people but I had been observing China for a long time and due to the influence of my family I had read newspapers ever since I was a kid. I used to read more then than I do now. Also, my household could subscribe to Reference News, which I knew published some Western journalists’ views on China’s problems. Also, like I said, we understood extremely well how the CCP had exploited the Western media.

You’ll notice that dissidents can establish personal empathy with journalists. Of course sometimes it’s wishful thinking since, as you know, some journalists just say, “I’m a professional and today I’m reporting this, but once it’s reported I have nothing to do with you.” But this is exactly what’s so interesting, because in the Democracy Wall period some dissidents established extremely good personal relationships with journalists from a few different countries, and became lifelong friends.

You’ve spoken about how important the Western media was to you, how did your April Fifth Forum colleagues see it?

You could say overall that there were three types of people. One type had ideas like mine, that we should actively make contact with the media. This was probably the main type, maybe 6 or 7 people. A couple of others said, “This is China’s issue, why should we let foreigners know about it?” [There was a time] when a journalist from Time magazine wanted to interview me, but some people wouldn’t let it happen – as everyone knows, the New York Times, Time and Newsweek are extremely important news media for the entire Western world!

Then there were one or two people who made the mistake of thinking the foreign media and foreign journalists were the most important thing. I didn’t see it that way. I thought, at the end of the day we are Chinese people, undertaking Chinese political activities, so we should establish normal, good relations with the foreign media but we can’t pin all our hopes on them. They are only journalists after all – even if they were their country’s government, they still couldn’t decide China’s future or its fate. There was no need to suck up to these journalists or have overly intimate relations with them. That wouldn’t be appropriate.

Where was the line between appropriate and not appropriate?

You shouldn’t pander to Western journalists, or say things to accord with their purposes, you should say what you want to say.

Interviewer's note:A classic Democracy Wall activist-journalist encounter saw famous American columnist Robert Novak and Toronto Globe and Mail correspondent John Fraser briefly take center stage at huge rallies in late November 1978. After visiting Democracy Wall, Novak did an interview with Deng, during which the ascendant ‘Paramount Leader’ openly expressed his approval of the Xidan Democracy Wall, which added greatly to the size and enthusiasm of the movement. As Xu remembers it: “Someone said there was a journalist [Novak] who was going to meet Deng Xiaoping. The two journalists asked us if we wanted them to deliver any comments to Deng, then afterwards they relayed some of Deng's words to the crowds at Democracy Wall. As a result Democracy Wall became bigger, because what came back was that Deng had said Democracy Wall was a good thing.”

Why do you think Deng Xiaoping choose to indicate his approval of the Democracy Wall Movement through the foreign media, rather than the Chinese media

This reflects a method that has been consistently employed by CCP leaders. Chinese people have jokingly dubbed this “export goods for domestic consumption” as well. Even though they were CCP people, they were smart, and had long-term experience in political work and political struggles. They were extremely good at exploiting the Western media, like Mao Zedong using Edgar Snow and other journalists’ mouths to talk to the world, and especially to talk to Chinese people.

Most people, Chinese or otherwise, are curious about things they haven't encountered. But in addition to this, from 1840 on China lost a succession of wars so it was difficult to avoid feelings of inferiority. From top to bottom, from the imperial court to the everyday people, there has been a kind of blind worship of all things foreign. [7]

Ever since the Qing Dynasty, worship of the foreign has been in the bones of Chinese governments, including the KMT and CCP governments. As a result they tend to believe that when foreigners say something, Chinese people will be more likely to believe it.

So Deng Xiaoping was exploiting the Western media's credibility?

Right, credibility. Because there were no free media under the CCP, they were completely the so-called “throat and tongue” of the Party, or a propaganda tool. So leaders like Deng themselves knew that the Chinese people did not believe what was in the Chinese media.

And what was Deng's motive for doing this? Do you think actually wanted the Democracy Wall Movement to spread?

At that time Deng had still not seized command of the CCP, so he needed to show how well-known he was and that ordinary people supported him. Even if he had been able to exercise sufficient control over the People's Daily to use it as a channel for this, he still would have trouble getting people, especially those at the Xidan Democracy Wall, to believe. Speaking through a foreigner, it was very easy to make it believable. [8]

At that time in late November 1978, foreigners, including journalists, discussed politics with the Democracy Wall crowds, including the particulars of Western political systems — did you or the people around you consider these discussions to have had much significance or consequence?

My conclusion in regards to this will probably disappoint you: I don't think the discussions influenced Chinese dissidents.

Let's turn it round: right up to today, November 2010, very few Chinese democrats really understand Western political systems. Even today there are almost none, let alone in 1978. Their understanding of ‘democracy’ is not the same thing as the democracy you are accustomed to; there is a huge discrepancy. You are living in the midst of democracy and a democratic political system, but for many Chinese people it’s just a phrase, or a set of extremely anarchic, ultra-individualist, ultra-liberal ideas passed down from the Communist Party. [That is why] you see overseas dissidents often have very severe arguments among themselves.

Surely the discussions must have at least confirmed the suspicions of many Chinese people regarding overseas conditions and political systems, no?

Of course. For the relatively lower-level people there it gave them an affirmative answer on this.

[Beforehand] they perhaps couldn't comprehend how a Western journalist or scholar could have an annual income of tens of thousands of American dollars, or how families overseas had one or two cars. Some of this had been reported in Chinese newspapers or on TV, but people didn't really believe it. But as soon as you met Western journalists you would discover they were very liberal with their money, they could casually pull out 100 renminbi to pay for a meal.

‘Human rights’ is the most obvious example of foreigners’ influence on dissidents, including their common expressions and words [. . .]. At the end of 1978 or the start of 1979, there were definitely some foreign journalists who gave Chinese Democracy Wall activists translations of texts on human rights.

However, a great amount of Western political, economic and social thought had spread to China long before this. After I arrived in America in 2002 a Harvard Professor asked me: “Since you grew up in China and spent that long in jail, how could you know about all these ideas?” I thought this was a very silly question. Modern ideas were present among the intellectuals of China long ago, and the CCP had certainly not destroyed all of them. You could read about this stuff in libraries if you wanted to. We saw a lot of Western movies, from which you could get a sense of Western customs and Western life. When I came to the West I found a lot of things that I remembered reading or seeing when I was young.

Is it possible that some articles, like the open letters posted on Democracy Wall asking Jimmy Carter to pay attention to human rights in China, would not have appeared if there weren't Western journalists there to report them?

As a Chinese proverb says, fire spreads on the wind9. Chinese dissidents may have something they want to say, and when the wind of the Western media blows they will say it. Or, perhaps with the Western media present they will say something they wouldn’t otherwise dare to say.

Having the Western media there, Western journalists who could take dazibao, or the words we said in interviews, to the world, made some of us bolder and more outspoken.

At that time, the April Fifth Forum was advocating a fairly stable sort of transition to greater democracy – did you ever find that journalists would pay more attention to those who were more radical than you?

Definitely, because media workers ideally have to chase down stories that will make a sensation. What the consequences of that sensation are, whether it’s good or bad for Chinese people or Chinese society, that’s not something they really pay attention to, because they’re not from that country. They get might do a story today and be gone tomorrow. Journalists, though not all journalists, are generally looking for fast returns [10], but it’s their profession that decides that for them. If they don’t come up with the best story, fast, the boss will fire them, or they at least won’t make a name for themselves. For journalists, fame is more important even than being real or the effects of what they do. It’s decided by the profession of journalism, so we can’t blame them for that.

  1. 噤若寒蝉 jin ruo han chan, lit. muted like cicadas in winter.
  2. 异议人士 yi yi renshi, the term Xu uses to refer to the Democracy Wall activists. Most, including Xu, did not oppose Communist Party rule or the socialist system.
  3. 利用 liyong “to use”, usually in a negative sense, so akin to “exploit”.
  4. 用, yong “to use”, neutral
  5. 出口转内销 chukou zhuan nei xiao.
  6. 参考消息 Cankao Xiaoxi.
  7. 崇洋媚外 chongyang meiwai
  8. Since Deng had been falsely denounced in the Chinese media as the “black hand” behind the 1976 Tiananmen Incident, some people might have interpreted a People’s Daily article announcing Deng's support as being put there by his political enemies.
  9. 火随风势 huo sui feng shi.
  10. 急功近利, ji gong jin li, lit. “hurrying for success and staying close to profit”.
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There are currently 1 Comments for Xu Wenli: How Chinese dissidents and the Communist Party use the Western media.

Comments on Xu Wenli: How Chinese dissidents and the Communist Party use the Western media

Good interview, but many references to the *"April Fourth Forum" should be corrected to "April Fifth Forum."
Wonder who the "Harvard professor" in 2002 was?

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