Will the China operations of the New York Times and Bloomberg News shut down at the end of this month? Only Thursday did the Chinese government issue press cards allowing these journalists to apply for residence visas, which it had been withholding. No reasons have been given for the implied threat, but investigative reports on the spectacular wealth of top government officials probably had something to do with it.
Even if the journalists get their visas, the government’s goal has been obvious: to plant fear in the back of the journalists’ minds in an effort to rein in their future reporting.
The outside world has been shocked at the prospect of two major news organizations shutting down. But to Chinese who have dared to utter unauthorized truths, this is a familiar pattern: If you behave, you can talk. Cross the line? We have our methods.
And one of the most battle-tested methods is to withhold permission to cross China’s borders. For Chinese critics of the government, the border long ago acquired a political toll booth: Whichever way you cross, you pay a price.
After student demonstrations for democracy ended in massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989, several dozen student leaders, intellectuals and government advisers wanted for arrest fled to the West. As years passed, many wanted to go home, often to see aging parents. Wu’er Kaixi, a student leader at Tiananmen Square, became so desperate to see his parents before they died that he flew to Hong Kong last month and gave himself up. He was willing to risk prison. But his plan did not have the expected outcome: Hong Kong authorities, evidently on instructions from Beijing, barred him. Article 13 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Not Chinese people.
In other cases reentry has been permitted, but there is always a toll. Chen Yizi, formerly a top adviser to the disgraced leader Zhao Ziyang, was allowed to return for his father’s funeral on the condition that he say nothing and leave quickly. Su Xiaokang, a distinguished journalist, was allowed into China for his father’s funeral but was not allowed to speak at it, send a wreath or even to attend. He was permitted to see the body only when no one else was there. One Tiananmen activist who became a reporter for a U.S. news organization was allowed home, provided that plainclothes police accompany her everywhere and that she keep the trip secret. Su Shaozhi, who had been director of Beijing’s Marxism-Leninism Research Institute when he fled in 1989 — the Chinese government doesn’t like serious political thinkers of any kind — grew old in the United States and negotiated the right to return, provided he keep quiet.
Most poignant, perhaps, is the case of Liu Binyan, whose exposés of corruption made him probably China’s most beloved writer as of 1985. Expelled from the Communist Party in 1987 and exiled in 1988, Liu died in New Jersey in 2005. Chinese consular officials in New York had, several times, offered Liu safe return in exchange for silence, but he refused. After his cremation, his family carried his ashes to China (secretly, fearing that even the ashes might be blocked at the border) and buried them under a gravestone. Liu had chosen the words for his epitaph: “Here lies a Chinese person who did some things that were right for a person to do and said some things that were right for a person to say.” It was the stonecutter who told the family that those words could not go onto the stone. “The superiors say no.” The family decided that, for the time being, a blank stone was eloquent enough.
While certain Chinese are barred from entering China, far more are prevented, on political grounds, from leaving. Wu’er Kaixi was desperate to enter China because his parents could not get passports to leave. Passport denial is the most common way for the government to block exit, but there are others: Every year the United Nations sponsors workshops in human rights principles, and every year some of the Chinese invitees, despite having valid passports and visas, are blocked at airports, sometimes physically. Ai Xiaoming, a professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, cannot go even 90 miles to Hong Kong for showings of her documentaries. They show too much of the “dark side” of China.
For Han Chinese, the general rule is that a person gets a passport unless there is evidence that person or a family member is a “troublemaker.” For Tibetans and Uighurs, whose entire ethnicities are suspect, that rule is inverted: No one gets a passport unless there is evidence of regime support.
If there is a silver lining in the predicament of the New York Times and Bloomberg, it is that the West may finally be getting a direct sense of the political culture at the top in China. It is a shrewd and inveterately competitive culture, drawn far less from Karl Marx than from China’s classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which outsmarting the opponent by whatever means is the most admired of achievements. When U.S. policymakers use terms like “strategic partner” and “responsible stakeholder” for the people at the top in Beijing, they are out of their depth.
An added irony is that, since the early 1990s, people like Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang, Chen Yizi, Su Shaozhi and others who know the elite communist culture well, who have lived in the United States and remain willing to cross the dangerous line into complete truth-telling, have never had much of a hearing in Washington. Chinese officials portray them as a political fringe, “dissidents” outside the mainstream that the Communist Party says it represents. This too is a “Three Kingdoms”-style tactic: false and clever at once. When Western governments accept it, we all lose.
Perry Link was a co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers. He teaches Chinese literature at the University of California, Riverside.