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The Fate of Press Freedom in China’s Era of ‘Reform and Opening up’:  An Interview With Chang Ping

December 15, 2016

Yaxue Cao spoke with Chang Ping in Toronto on December 2, 2016.




YC: You used to be the director of the news department of the famed Southern Weekly and a columnist there, and you belong to a community of journalists who distinguished themselves in the 25 years of “market-oriented” media that coincided with the period of soaring economic development from early 1990s until recently. I’ve been wanting to hear your story, because I sensed that your trajectory as a journalist has also been the trajectory of China’s “market-oriented media.” So I’m very happy to see you. First of all, congratulations on receiving the CJFE International Press Freedom Award. They made a great choice.

Chang Ping: Thank you.

YC: I knew you were a 1989er, but I only learned yesterday, from watching the CJFE video, that you were detained for a month after the June 4th Massacre. Tell us a bit about your experience in 1989. Where were you?

Chang Ping: I was a sophomore at Sichuan University, majoring in Chinese Literature. In Chengdu, as in Beijing, college students took to the streets to protest, staged hunger strikes in the public square downtown, and held dialogues with the provincial government. I was involved in organizing some of these activities. After the crackdown, I was detained for a month and severely disciplined.

YC: How did you become a journalist?

Chang Ping: I wanted to be a novelist, and never thought much about journalism. I didn’t have a job after the June 4th protest, nor did I care for a career in the system. I stumbled on my first media job by accident: in Chengdu, a boss and I, just two of us, started a business intelligence magazine. That was 1991, the year before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour. With scissors and glue, I cut out what I thought was useful business information and arranged it in categories such as policy, law, overseas information, etc. Back then it was still hot metal typesetting, and I had to go to the factory to set the characters with workers. In Chengdu region, small and medium businesses really needed that kind of information. Very soon we had a lot of subscribers. I had first-hand knowledge that, before Deng’s Southern Tour, the commercial impetus at the bottom half of society was already bubbling up. So for me, it wasn’t a surprise at all when, in 1992, the economy kickstarted after Deng’s tour. I also edited a book with the title “The Swelling Commercial Tides.”   

After a while I quit the magazine and wrote short stories that were published in a journal called Young Writers. Some were recommended to the then-famous literary magazine Harvest. An editor asked me to revise my story, but I was so proud back then that I told him I wouldn’t change a word. At the same time I also compiled historical storybooks for young readers.

After 1992, the government began to push for market reforms. Some government-owned publications were outsourced. I leased a paper called Market Herald (《市场导报》), I was the deputy editor-in-chief, but the de facto editor-in-chief. But I loved reporting on everyday life, so I went out and wrote about, for example, Chengdu’s river channel improvement project, the living conditions of the blind, etc. The paper wasn’t making any money, so after two months it couldn’t go on. Right around that time, Chengdu Commercial Daily (《成都商报》)  was founded by He Huazhang (何华章), and I joined as part of the earliest team, in charge of social reporting. Later I also edited the front page, and was one of the editorial managers.

Chengdu Commercial Daily pursued a vernacular style. Our reports, even some headlines, were written in everyday Sichuan dialect. When reporting the annual Two Sessions in Beijing, all newspapers had the same headlines as the People’s Daily, something like “The National People’s Congress Solemnly Opens in Beijing,” while our headline was simply, “NPC Held Meeting.” We were criticized for being not serious.

YC: Indeed, revolt often begins from aesthetics and taste.

Chang Ping: Chengdu Commercial Daily was an immediate success and made a lot of money. A year later, the municipal Party propaganda department took it into their hands as their own cultural achievement. Later, the paper formed a media group by consolidating with the Chengdu Evening News, which had been the leading paper of the city, a radio station, a TV station, and literary magazines, and was listed on China’s stock exchanges.

As Chengdu Commercial Daily became more and more mainstream, meaning more and more like the Party’s mouthpieces, my difference with other editors widened. I remember in early 1998 when the rock singer Cui Jian (崔健) issued “The Power of the Powerless,” I sent a reporter in Beijing to interview Cui and he talked about the difficulty of revolt. The propaganda department was very unhappy about it and chided me harshly. My commentaries were also criticized for “promoting a capitalist view of the press.”     

Another event was the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997. We had never experienced anything like that and didn’t know how to report it. But all Chinese held the wisdom that you can’t mess around with this, and you must do whatever People’s Daily does. You have to use the standard script issued by Xinhua News — but how do we design the page? We studied how papers reported Mao Zedong’s death, what font and what size of font were used for headlines. As the Party’s mouthpiece in Sichuan, the Sichuan Daily had no pressure; they simply waited for the phototypesetting of People’s Daily that was sent to all over the country — at that point it was phototypesetting printing. Our pressure came from the market. We wanted to publish early. So the editor-in-chief came up with an idea. He went to the printing factory and cheated out the phototypesetting of the People’s Daily. The next day, Chengdu Commercial Daily was the first paper in the city with the news. We were so happy about our cleverness!

About a week later, I saw a weekend paper from Guangzhou. On the left it was a large photo of Deng Xiaoping, on the right the headline was simply “Mr. Deng Passed Away.” The text below was also Xinhua’s standard announcement, the same as everyone else. I was rather shocked: what we thought was creative and smart was really nothing; we were just toadying.

I didn’t want to stay in Chengdu anymore. I met with Shen Hao (沈灏), the news director of Southern Weekly (《南方周末》), who was in Chengdu on business. He wanted me to join the rising Southern Weekly. So I did.

YC: Shen Hao was sentenced to four years in prison last year and paraded on CCTV giving “self-confessions.”  

Chang Ping: He Huazhang has also been also detained. He was working at Sichuan People’s Publishing House in 1989. His career stalled because he joined the protests. He left the state system to found Chengdu Commercial Daily. The success of the paper catapulted him to hero status in China’s market reforms. He returned to government and became head of the municipal Party propaganda department and deputy mayor. He was taken into custody by the CCDI, the Party’s disciplinary committee, following the fall of Zhou Yongkang (周永康). He’s been in detention for a year or two already without trial. Many Party officials are in the same situation: no legal procedures are applied to them, and there’s no news reporting on them.

YC: Southern Weekly attracted a lot of young and idealistic reporters.

Chang Ping: At Southern Weekly, I reported on local government corruption, and environmental degradation. In 1998, there were floods across China. Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) stood in the Yangtze River and reporting abounded. Southern Weekly made a plan to investigate the cause of the flood along the Yangtze River, beginning from the Tibetan plateau. Most of our series were observations: deforestation and soil erosion. I wrote similar things too, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to look for stories. In Barkam (马尔康), northern Sichuan, I found a tree feller who had been honored for years as a model feller. He told me, “Now I feel the flood has something to do with me.” I wrote a report titled “The Last Model Feller,” because my sense was that there would be no more model fellers anymore, and it was a big success.    

But soon Southern Weekly was “rectified.” Shen Hao was removed, and columnist Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山) and editor Cao Xihong (曹西弘) were censored.

YC: Why the rectification?

Chang Ping: Shen Hao organized a lot of reporting on the dark side of society — for example, publishing illustration of the varieties of torture police used to extract confessions. Yan Lieshan was an essayist well known for incisive criticism. Cao Xihong was the first to investigate the dark secrets of the railway and communication industries that the state monopolized.

After the rectification, I was appointed first the deputy director, and then the director, of the news department. I was responsible for news planning, page layout, and the deployment of reporters and editors. I also edited the front page, the Reporter’s Observations page, and the investigations page. Almost every weekend, I’d go out for stories, and I reported on judicial corruption, pollution, women’s rights, gay rights, and more.  

At the time we tried to record changes in Chinese society using methods from anthropology and sociology. For example, we chose a village, a township, and a street in the heartland, the West, and the coast respectively — our plan was to revisit the same place at the end of every year for ten years to record its changes. I was forced to leave Southern Weekly three years later, but the editors and reporters continued and completed the plan. Ten years later, they published a book titled Here and There: A Report on the Transformation of Grassroots China (《这儿与那儿:中国转型期基层调查》).

YC: I’ll find that and take a look.

Chang Ping: I’ve always wanted to be an independent voice. At that time the majority of the journalists and commentators with dissenting views went about it by latching their own ideas onto those already in the air. For instance they’d take the “Three Represents” (三个代表) and try to explain the positive aspect of the theory, and then add in their own understanding: “Only by moving towards democracy, rule of law, and liberty will the will of the people be truly represented.” But I look at things differently. I am extremely sensitive to language. Words are not just a means of expression, they are the expression in and of itself. So if you even use “Three Represents” or similar slogans, you’re doing propaganda for it, no matter how much you try to smuggle in your own stuff. Also with Falun Gong — we were required to write about it as a political task, but we stubbornly resisted. We basically didn’t do any reports, whether good or bad. I got accused by some people of “rejecting the mainstream.”

In the spring of 2001 there was the case of Zhang Jun (张君), who for a while was a notorious triad boss. He robbed banks, killed cops, and had a record throughout Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing, and of course had numerous mistresses. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. He was caught by Chongqing Public Security Bureau led by Wen Qiang (文强). In a photo, Wen had him on the ground, one foot on his face, and announced: “Zhang Jun is under my foot.” Wen Qiang, of course, was later executed by Bo Xilai (薄熙来) for protecting the mafia.

YC: And then Bo Xilai was himself jailed by Xi Jinping. In the Communist Party’s autocratic politics, anyone in the system can just be peeled off like a layer of cabbage — no one’s safe. Who’s to say that, in a few year’s time, Xi Jinping won’t be the one in jail?

Chang Ping: The capture of Zhang Jun was a big grand achievement for Chongqing public security — a chance for them to really bignote and back-slap themselves. They organized a lot of interviews, and a CCTV crew also went to interview Zhang Jun face-to-face in the detention center. I was mulling over how we should cover the case at Southern Weekly. Media around the country were running the story front page every day, and we were a weekly publication, so we were already a bit behind. I sent journalists to write a piece about how Zhang Jun grew up. It was titled: “Exploring the Zhang Jun Case: The Rise of a Brutal Syndicate” (《张君案检讨 – 一个极端暴力集团的成长》). It traced the story of how a simple village kid who left home to become a migrant worker in the end became the head of a triad group. It also scrutinized the operations of China’s criminal justice organs. As Zhang Jun himself put it, every time he entered prison, he came out worse. The article sent shockwaves through Hunan and Chongqing. Party bosses there wrote a letter to the Central Propaganda Department, saying Southern Weekly could even turn such a monumental achievement of law enforcement into a smear against socialism, against rural policies, and against the public security agencies.

In the autumn of 2001 Southern Weekly was “rectified” once again, after four articles we published were specifically called out and criticized. Editors and journalists were moved on and sacked. One of the four was the Zhang Jun investigation, and of the other three, one was about a cemetery for Red Guards who died in the Cultural Revolution, called “A Chongqing Cemetery Buries the Cultural Revolution’s Young Warriors” (《青春墓地埋葬重庆文革武斗》). Another was about a massive explosion in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the censors thought we’d just reported too many details. The last was a commentary about the situation in the Middle East, which made the key point that dictatorship is the source of turmoil in that region.

After those four articles were specifically named as problematic, I was removed, the editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping (江艺平) was transferred, and the deputy editor-in-chief was also transferred out. That was also the biggest turning point for Southern Weekly. I was transferred to be the deputy general manager of the circulation department — so I hadn’t actually been fired. They gave me a job title and salary, but no work.

YC: So it was just about two years after the previous “rectification.”

Chang Ping: Right. It was a time when independent voices won an unprecedented level of prestige for Southern Weekly, and it brought so much space for the imagination in freedom of speech and political reform in China. The paper also became a model that journalists and editors around China aspired to emulate. Many pro-reform scholars and lawyers were also very supportive. But it was all along also a target of repression.

YC: How many pages was the newspaper then?

Chang Ping: At the beginning it was 8, then we doubled, and then went to 24 pages. Sometimes we also added pages, and there were also experimental pages. On the professional side, Southern Weekly was really at the vanguard for trying new things, and it brought together so many people in the industry who had ideals, in particular many brilliant writers in the field. Our reports were very carefully done, and the writing was always well-crafted. Layout was exceptional, too — when I became the director of news, I put a lot of energy into photography and page design.

I left soon after I lost my editorial position. CCTV had just begun a new channel, 12, and I was invited to be the editor of a talk show. I did that for two months, so I gained some understanding of CCTV. But I simply couldn’t stand the culture there. I had to get out. In 2002, with friends from Chengdu and Guangzhou, we founded The Bund (《外滩画报》) in Shanghai. Shanghai is a city with extremely strict ideological controls — there’s a certain lifelessness about it. We hoped to inject some vitality into the place, but from the beginning we were put under strict monitoring and control. We hardly had space to operate. In 2003 I accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, for a one year visiting scholarship. After I returned I went back to The Bund as deputy chief editor. In 2005 the propaganda department was unhappy with the job our official supervisor, the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House (上海文艺出版社), was doing keeping us in line, and they forced them to sell us to the Wenhui Xinmin United Press Group (文新集团). They didn’t want to buy, and we didn’t want to sell, but the deal went through regardless.

YC: It sounds similar to what happened recently with Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Chang Ping: Right. The Bund is still around, though it’s now turned into a fashion magazine. In 2005 I returned to Guangzhou and rejoined the Southern Group, running Southern Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) as the deputy chief editor in charge of daily operations.

Southern Metropolis Weekly is a magazine of urbanized China — it focuses on civil society, the environment, women’s rights, and issues related to rights movements, ideas, culture, and so on. It’s relatively moderate in tone compared to Southern Weekly, but it’s still been hit with a lot of criticism by the authorities.

In the midst of all this, I also started writing a syndicated column, commenting on current affairs and culture. In April 2008 I published a commentary in the Chinese version of Financial Times titled: “Tibet: Nationalist Sentiment and the Truth” (《“西藏:真相与民族主义情绪”》). This was after the March 14 unrest in Tibet, where official media failed to carry any substantial reports, while social media and a number of websites let loose with a barrage of criticism against CNN, BBC, and other foreign media, accusing them of false reporting. In the piece, I wrote that if their concerns were really about news values, they shouldn’t be exclusively focused on exposing the misreporting of the Western press, but should also be calling into question the information found in the Chinese media, and the strict controls over the press in China. The latter deals far greater damage to the media environment than the former, the column argued. I also suggested that the narrow-minded Han nationalism common in China should be carefully examined. That article stirred up a tempest, and websites like China Online, KDnet, Utopia, and a few other Han nationalist sites pinned it on top of the page, and went into overdrive hyping it up. Just a single one of these forum posts got several hundred thousand hits, with tens of thousands of comments, most of them attacking me. Some people even threatened that they’d harm me and my family.

At the time too there was a Duke University student, Grace Wang (王千源), who during a campus demonstration was accused of supporting Tibetan independence. She was attacked by Chinese students at Duke, and her parents in China were attacked too. Her parents had to move into a hotel for their own safety, after attackers left feces at their door.

Beijing Evening News (《北京晚报》) took the rare step of publishing an article directly attacking me, called “Chang Ping Is a Rumormonger” (《造谣自由的南都长平》). The author, Mei Ninghua (梅宁华), writing under the pseudonym “Pen Spear” (文锋) was the president of Beijing Daily [the official mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal propaganda department]. His article caused an uproar. This dispute was the opening volley in a five year-long running debate about universal values, which Xi Jinping shut down in 2013.

Because of this I was again removed from my post, and prohibited from doing any work in the newsroom. They transferred me to the Southern Media Group’s research institute. But I kept writing columns for Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》). After six months those columns were also brought to a halt. They told me that if I agreed to stop writing, I might be able to keep my job. I refused, and kept publishing current affairs commentary in other outlets. At the end of 2010 the propaganda department demanded that the Southern Media Group completely cut off all association with me.

Newspapers, websites, and publishing houses around the country were from that point on prohibited from publishing or printing my articles or books, and websites were ordered to delete my previously-published articles and author information. At that point I had a large number of readers, and a lot of websites syndicated my blog, even real estate websites carried my column. It wasn’t me updating them. I saw myself disappearing from the internet before my own eyes — they weren’t only not publishing me, but erasing my existence. For a while, it was hard to even find my name online.

YC: It’s terrifying when you think about it. As long as they want to do it, they can make someone disappear. They can also make history, or reality, disappear. Even a journalist such as yourself can turn into such a nightmare for them, so much so that they want to expunge you completely.

When the wave of arrests in spring 2011 took place during the so-called Jasmine Revolution, what were you doing?

Chang Ping: I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, and like a lot of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong to study, I went home on the weekends. Someone said to me at one point: You shouldn’t go back. Apart from writing my columns, I don’t do anything else — so should I follow this instruction and not go home? I didn’t want to be intimidated. It just so happened that right at that time I received an invitation to go to France for a forum. A number of others, including Yu Hua (余华), Zhan Jiang (展江), and Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), also participated. When I was in Paris, police in China came to my home to arrest me.

When I went back I remained in Hong Kong and helped found iSun Affairs (《阳光时务》.)

YC: iSun Affairs was a publication with serious ambition, and it brought together so many talented people, including yourself and Cheng Yizhong (程益中), who also worked for years in the Southern newspapers. iSun’s reporting on Wukan (乌坎), in particular, left a deep impression on me. You were chief editor at the time, but a lot of people may not realize that you were in Germany and had turned your schedule upside-down to work remotely. What happened there?

Chang Ping: I never expected it, but the Hong Kong government dragged out the approval of my work visa for two years (and in the end, rather than say that they  had “rejected” it, they simply said that they “were no longer processing it.”) They came up with all sorts of reasons for investigating me, including an absurd attempt to establish whether or not I had taught illegally when I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. As soon as they did this, it was clear that I couldn’t return to mainland China. With a PRC passport I could stay in Hong Kong for seven days at a time, so every weekend I flew to neighboring countries for “vacation,” including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. After two months of that, Hong Kong immigration personnel told me that I couldn’t stay in Hong Kong like that — I would have to return to China or else the next time I arrived, there’d be trouble. So I never went back. After I received an invitation from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I went from Cambodia to Germany.

Thanks to the support of my Hong Kong colleagues, I was able to stay on as the chief editor of iSun Affairs, working from Germany, for the next two years. But it also was extremely difficult, and the magazine was banned in China. In the end, we parted ways. I stayed in Germany and continued writing commentary for publications in Germany, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and continued to address the Chinese authorities’ repression.

YC: So in that case you haven’t been able to return to China since 2011. iSun Affairs had to shut down after a little over a year; one of the main investors, Chen Ping (陈平), was violently attacked in Hong Kong, Cheng Yizhong relocated to the United States, and you went to Germany. Later you wrote a column for Deutsche Welle and South China Morning Post, and got into an intense debate with another Deutsche Welle columnist, Frank Sieren, about the June 4 massacre. After SCMP was sold to Jack Ma, they immediately shut down your column. Earlier this year when the letters urging Xi Jinping to resign came out, your family in China was harassed.

Of course, the storied Southern Weekly is no more after the “Southern Weekly Incident” in January 2013. A great experiment has ended. 

In 1999 “Southern Weekly” published a very famous New Year’s dedication, titled “There is a power that moves us to tears,” which said in part: “May the powerless be empowered, and may the dispirited continue forward.” This line inspired a generation of aspiring media figures. Now in 2016, press freedom in China has not only failed to progress, but has regressed dramatically. Please share some final thoughts for our interview today.

Chang Ping: Many years ago we were very optimistic. At that time I believed that every step made in the news field would promote progress in Chinese society, and that every word we wrote contained power — even if it could only be measured in milligrams. Looking back now, I often feel quite dejected. China is going backwards in so many areas. But I have never doubted the value of fighting for freedom of expression. Even if there’s no tomorrow, we still need justice today. It’s just as I put it in my acceptance speech for this award in Toronto: freedom of expression is not merely necessary for all other freedoms, but speech itself is freedom.

I made the following line the signature for my blog and social media accounts for many years: “If criticism is not free, praise is meaningless.” A friend and I translated it from  the French: “Sans la liberté de blamer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.” It became popular and widely quoted in China, and made many people come to see how meaningless the Chinese government’s self-flattery is once it has gone around crushing all dissenting views. It makes us also see the value of critique, which was the goal of my being in the news and commentary field for so long. Now, I could disappear, but these ideas are already deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.



Chang Ping (长平) lives in Germany. Follow him on Twitter @chang_ping

Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao




China’s ‘Freedom’ Cage, by Chang Ping, 2015.

‘Speech Is Freedom Itself’ – Chang Ping’s Acceptance Speech for the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award, December 1, 2016

The Virus of Censorship, by Cheng Yizhong, 2012.




Sheng Shuren: A Jounalist in New China – Part 5

By Yaxue Cao, published: June 29, 2012


The Shengs were a prominent family in Ningpo. There were the old Shengs and the new Shengs; Mr. Sheng’s family was the old Shengs, landowners for generations. The family residence consisted of ten adjoining quadrangles, the innermost being the ancestor hall where memorial tablets and portraits of ancestors were displayed. I loved to play there the best, said Mr. Sheng, on my family’s visits when I was a little boy, because it was as big as a basketball court and I could run amok there, whereas my older sisters were scared and wouldn’t dare to go. Mr. Sheng’s mother was also from Ningpo, the daughter of a brewery owner. Mr. Sheng’s eldest sister and Sheng Shuren, his only older brother, were both born in Ningpo.

An old house in Ningbo.

In the early 1920s when Shanghai was experiencing an unprecedented industrial boom, their father moved his family there. For some years, he was the sales executive of the legendary Tian Chu MSG manufacturer, travelling frequently in Southeast Asian countries and all the way to San Francisco across the Pacific. He did very well and the Shengs lives comfortably in their house inside the French settlement, where Mr. Sheng’s older sisters and brother grew up and Mr. Sheng himself was born. In the mid 1930s, Mr. Sheng’s father founded a kerosene refinery and owned a barge that transported goods between the plant and the Wusong Mouth where the Huangpo River meets the Yangtzi. Just as the father’s career was peaking, the Japanese bombed the plant, destroying everything, and took away the barge. Mr. Sheng’s father was instantly bankrupted, had to sell the house, and the family lived on savings. After the Japanese surrendered, the Nationalist government took over the barge. Mr. Sheng’s father used whatever connections he could and paid “activity fees” to a lot of people hoping to retrieve the only property he had left. The bribes added up but did not bring back his barge. By the time the communists took over Shanghai, there was no trace of the boat anymore. In Ningpo, over the years, Mr. Sheng’s grandmother had accumulated more land using the money her son had been sending her, and when the communist land reform took place, her land and the family home were seized and distributed to the poor. In the 1950s, Mr. Sheng’s father worked in Hong Kong for a few years and returned to Shanghai at the end of the decade because of declining health.

In February 1961, Mr. Sheng, already teaching at Anhui University, saw his older brother when he visited home for the Chinese New Year. He looked pretty well, said Mr. Sheng. Did he? I was surprised to hear that. But on second thought it made perfect sense: After a year and half in the forced labor camp, he could only be glad to return home and in the company of the family. True that he had just suffered the most egregious injustice, but the full meaning of it could take some time to manifest itself, and, in any case, it is not hard for a capable man in his prime, like himself, to keep hope alive. After the Chinese New Year, Sheng Shuren returned to Beijing—as was required of him—to “take care of the paperwork.” That included cancelling his resident registration from municipal Beijing and signing the “Conclusions” about his case in the Organization Department of the Xinhua News Agency that stated “Sheng Shuren has admitted to the aforementioned wrongdoing without reservations” and announced his expulsion from the Agency. It didn’t matter that he had never admitted to the charges against him, nor had anyone asked for, or allowed him to express, his opinions about his own case. He signed the paper, prepared beforehand and dated, placed in front of him as he was supposed to.

On his way back to Shanghai, he stopped in Hefei to see what Anhui University was like. His younger brother was trying to find him a teaching job at the university. In bad need of talent, the university responded eagerly. But many days passed without a follow-up, and when Mr. Sheng inquired, he was simply told no without an explanation. Back in Shanghai, Sheng Shuren found he was denied a Shanghai resident registration by the Municipal Public Security Bureau. He became what the Shanghaiese called a “pocket registration,” or a shadow resident. Luckily for him, he was issued a Food Ration Certificate, except that the ration for a regular adult was 14 kilos a month but for him it was 12.5 kilos. Soon after he returned, his wife divorce him, each having the custody of two children, although, Mr. Sheng said, his wife still helped take care of the other two children and she also gave all the jewelry the Shengs had given her years ago for her wedding back to her husband to help him out. My brother’s subsequent attempts to find a job had all come to nothing, said Mr. Sheng, and he began to teach English stealthily—if caught, he would be in more trouble—to scrape a few yuan here and a few yuan there. His eldest daughter was a brilliant student, did very well on her national college entrance exams, but was denied a college admission because of her father. She came to me, said Mr. Sheng, asking what she should do; I coached her to make a high-minded gesture in school by saying “I love the Party with all my heart and I am prepared to go anywhere the Party assigns me.” My hope was, said Mr. Sheng, that, by looking righteous, perhaps she would arouse someone’s sympathy. But nobody took pity on her. Later on, Mr. Sheng found a job for her in Yunnan, the southwestern province, through his connections.

Sheng Shuren, around 1965, wearing a pin of the foreign language school where he was teaching, a hopeful time for him.

In mid-1960s, Shanghai Foreign Language College established a training program for studying-aboard candidates, and, with the help from his friend Qian Weifan, Sheng Shuren taught English there. The hope was, if he continued to teach and make himself essential, perhaps the college would offer him a permanent job down the road. But before long, the Cultural Revolution came, the training program was scrapped. During the Cultural Revolution, Sheng Shuren was largely spared the fresh assault on the educated class that reached a new, vicious peak, thanks to the fact that he had already been ostracized from society, without registration, jobless, and reporting to no particular work unit. One summer though when I was on vacation at home, said Mr. Sheng, my brother disappeared all of a sudden one day. His eldest son and I looked for him for three or four days and couldn’t find him. Finally, we found him in a little hostel occupied by a faction of Shanghai’s “revolutionary rebels” who had detained him at the black market and kept him for twenty or thirty days before letting him go. An old woman with bound feet told on him, he later told me. In Shanghai at the time, said Mr. Sheng, everybody knew the black market and used it, but only people like him, if not cautious, would be picked on. That was how he spent those years, said Mr. Sheng, earning a few yuan stealthily teaching English, getting some help from his two older children after they had grown and had jobs, and, now and then, my mother would tuck a few yuan into his hand. It was a hard time for the rest of us too, said Mr. Sheng, my monthly salary was fifty yuan, my sisters struggled too, all of us had to support our parents, and we had not been able to help him. When he was hit by a car and died, said Mr. Sheng, on his way to or from a hospital visit, no one in my family was in Shanghai. The neighborhood committee sold his furniture—the furniture my parents had left behind—on the spot to whoever took it and for whatever offer and paid for his hospital bills and his cremation before one of his sons made it back to Shanghai.

Have you read Rabindranath Tagore? Mr. Sheng asked me. I said I know the name, I might have read a few pages of Stray Birds in college, but I have forgotten it all. My brother became the untouchable, said Mr. Sheng, when he came back from Beijing. Do you see?

In the same sentence Uncle Erning mentioned Sheng Shuren’s name, he also named the charge against him: Obscenity against women. It was the first question I asked Erjia when he said he knew Sheng Shuren. “Ah!” Erjia’s voice leaped out of tune to a shrill. “In Xushui, it was a mayhem of people working day and night those days, and Erning said Sheng Shuren had to pee badly, so he ran to the edge of the field to relieve himself. When he did so, a woman saw him and made a scene of it. That was that! That was how he committed ‘obscenity against women!’” Erjia recoiled in pain and protest. “Erning said when they charged him with obscenity against women, the very woman who saw him laughed out loud! How did that bear out the charge? Erning said ‘An insult to common sense! Impossible to reason with them! Yet they can arrest you anytime they want, and you can do nothing but swallow it!'”

Uncle Erning, of course, was raging about not just Sheng Shuren’s case, but also his own.

I thought about the word “shameful”. Shame, it seems, has its own life regardless of its cause and whether there is justice to it. It lived with him like a shadow and lives on long after he was gone. Even Erjia would unconsciously use a word like that.


The End


Part 1,  Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


Sheng Shuren: A Journalist in New China – Part 4

By Yaxue Cao, published: June 28, 2012


I almost forgot; I had been to Shanghai before. It was the Chinese New Year of 1990, I decided spontaneously to go to a friend’s home to spend the holidays. On New Year’s Eve, I boarded an airplane in Guangzhou, and landed, several hours later, at Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. From the airport, I took a taxi to the Shanghai Train Station. I remember it was dusk, the sky overcast, the air chilling beyond a northerner’s assumption of Shanghai. There was not a soul on the streets. I don’t know why, but right at this moment, I am thinking about six o’clock. Two clicks away now, I know the trip is sixteen kilometers long, and passes a zoo, at least one movie theater, the Sun Yat-sen Park that every major Chinese city has, and streets that once had names like Jernigan Road and Edinburgh Road. But I was either dozing off or lost in wandering thoughts in the taxi, for all I can recall of Shanghai are a section of a gray wall and a few buildings whose shapes are as illusory as objects in a dream. At the train station, I boarded the train, according to my friend’s instructions, to go to my destination, Hefei.

My friend lived on a university campus where all the students were gone for the holidays and, blanked under a new snow, silence reigned. After the lunar New Year’s Day, I walked on the streets of Hefei. Even though I had never been to that city before, or anywhere near it for that matter, everything seemed familiar to me, the streets, the buildings, the shops, and the people; the wintry bareness and the muddy slush underfoot. It was just like my hometown, or thousands of other Chinese towns. It was China. To my ears, the first winter after the summer of ’89 was as silent as death, the roar of bulldozers and dump trucks were yet to arrive, and I was preparing to leave the country. I had always known the path I could take would be narrow, but I didn’t know I would be up against the wall in only a few short years after college. About the place I was planning to go I had not the faintest idea and, therefore, no fantasy of it to speak of; the only thing I knew for certain was I had to go, anywhere I could. The year after, I left China and came to the United States.

In the following days, I talked to Mr. Sheng via telephone and email. I learned that, when his brother was arrested the second time in the north, he was a student of astronomy in Nanjing University with a focus on celestial mechanics. I asked how he would describe celestial mechanics to a layman like me, he said, “It is the mathematics dealing with the motion of the three bodies—the Sun, the Earth and the Moon.” I said I still couldn’t imagine what mathematics that would be, but I liked the words the sun, the earth and the moon. He said, the broader question was the “n-body problem,” or, to predict the motion of celestial objects under mutual gravitation. It was a problem unsolved for the past three hundred years, said Mr. Sheng, and probably wouldn’t be in another three hundred years, but I was determined to do just that! He chuckled in self-mockery, but I was very much affected by the young mathematician’s ardor. Mr. Sheng escaped the cataclysm that had befallen millions of China’s educated class, university students included, during the Anti-rightist Campaign in 1957, but it stoked fear in him as he came to the realization that everything about him, his family background, his disgraced brother and his own education, could be a liability. He said he woke up every morning not knowing what the day would bring and went to bed every night worrying about what awaited him tomorrow. He was one of the top students but not selected to join the faculty of Nanjing University, nor for graduate study. He was assigned to a teaching job at Anhui University in Hefei and has stayed ever since.

I told Mr. Sheng about my trip in early 1990 that took me to Shanghai and Hefei, two places I have come to associate with through writing this story. I learned from Mr. Sheng, not without a small sense of wonder, that the Shengs’ in Shanghai was only a short walk from the train station except that, at that time, their home at No. 426 Lane, N. Jiangxi Road, had long been empty. At the Mathematics Department of Anhui University, Mr. Sheng found a certain solace and security in pure mathematics. After the ten-year Cultural Revolution, in the early 1980s, he passed the selection exams for faculty studying abroad. He studied and researched in the Université de Strasbourg in France and the Universitat de Barcelona in Spain for three years. I asked Mr. Sheng when he had learned French, and he told me he started in his boyhood when attending the affiliated secondary school of the Université l’Aurore, a French Jesuit institution in Shanghai before the communist liberation, and later in the famed Li Da Institute. In college and later on, he read mathematical literature in French that he could get a hold of. For the first seven years of the 1970s, when he and some of his colleagues, including his department chair, were sent away to the countryside on the bank of Yangtzi River, he worked in the fields, coached a basketball team on loan to the county’s Sport Committee, and took part in the Peasants’ Propaganda Team.

And he also kept up with his mathematics. For entertainment, he tried his hand at translating French literary classics that he had bought from the Foreign Language Book Store in Shanghai published by the Russians for language learning purposes. Carmen, Colomba and Ninety-three were some of the titles he ventured into. With The Lady of the Camellias, he did the novel as well as the play. He enjoyed it a lot, sharing his translations with his old school mates in secret. When I asked about his life in retirement, he said reading, writing and playing basketball. Since retirement, he has published a dozen or so papers and written two books, one was Mathematics in the Social Disciplines that had been printed twice and sold out twice; the other is Geometry of Election that he hopes would be published soon. I said jokingly, from the titles of your books, it seemed that you had turned from the celestial to the earthly.

Cover of Journalistic Practices, 1957

When Sheng Shuren returned to the Xinhua News Agency in 1956, he went alone. He was thirty-six years old, father of four, the youngest a newborn. His wife, a head nurse at a children’s hospital, had not wanted to move to Beijing the first time and, with the two years in Beijing ending the way they did, she wouldn’t go this time. At Xinhua, Sheng Shuren resumed his old job of translating foreign media. There is no way to retrieve the products of his work except for three articles in his name in Journalistic Practices, a monthly published by the Xinhua News Agency, in 1957. Two of them are translations, one is his own writing. Both translations are from Russian, one describing “the Central Home for Journalists” in Moscow, how it was “a place for all journalists to engage in creative activities.” Another relates how, during what it calls “the Hungarian Incident” broken out on October 23, 1956, “political adventurists” (they become “gangsters” and then “an anti-revolutionary group” as the article progresses) occupied media apparatuses and controlled newspapers and journals, and how, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, to which the article avoids making direct reference, Hungarian newspapers were printed more beautifully and, more importantly, how freedom of the press was better serving the interest of the people and socialism without falling into the hands of the enemies of the people and freedom. His translation is smooth, unfolding with clarity when there are multiple modifiers. But what is more telling is probably the unhurried tone with which he writes. When I mentioned his translation from Russian to Mr. Sheng, he was very surprised because he had no idea his brother knew Russian, but he obviously did.

Sheng Shuren’s own piece appeared in the September issue, and the title, when I first saw it, almost made me jump: The Headquarters of American Fabrications and Intelligence—the U.S. Information Agency. In the few hundred words that followed, he presented USIA from its budget, setup to its operations, using the same composed language and with the same clarity, except here and there, words like “flagrant”, “fabrication” would stick out like thorns from an otherwise smooth surface. Then, in the very last sentence, also the concluding paragraph, the tone rises sharply and the language turns into the kind of abusive language that I saw everyday in newspapers when I grew up and still is the standard language of China’s state media to threat, to vent and to express displeasure. “It is therefore clear that the USIA is a spy agency that robs over a hundred million dollars from the American people each year to engage in fabricating lies and collecting intelligence.” He might have written this himself, or the editor did. In any case, he had to learn to talk like this in the Xinhua News Agency. For a man with a liberal arts education like he had, it had to be a steep remaking of himself even just linguistically. If this article tells anything at all, it shows he still had a long way to go to adjust.

In March 1958, Sheng Shuren and Uncle Erning, part of a large group of Xinhua personnel, were sent to Xushui, a county some 200 kilometers away from Beijing in Hebei Province, to help the Great Leap Forward campaign there. Xushui at the time was a national model of the Great Leap Forward promoted by the Central Committee of the Party, and universities and cultural institutions in Beijing, Xinhua included, had been sending their people to participate in this great leap forward to a communist society. In the previous winter, the impoverished county with a population of 300,000 had built more than two hundred reservoirs in response to the call for water management from the Center in Beijing, declaring that, for the first time in history, the county had once and for all eliminated both flood and draught. Literature about the Great Leap Forward in Xushui abounds, and from it I learned people in Xushui lived the life of the People’s Commune, eating together in the Communes’ canteens and marching with their hoes and baskets in military formation to the fields. They worked twenty-four hours a day in three shifts. The earth was dug as deep as three feet in order to use more fertilizer for higher yield; and grain was planted in improbable density to create agricultural miracles. I also learned that factories sprung up like bamboo shoots, and, overnight, each commune and each village claimed to have dozens of them. By the time the Steel and Iron Production Campaign peaked, “every household built a furnace and everyone was participating.” Xushui dared itself to open up universities, and lo and behold, it announced the establishment of 101 universities one day in July. Xushui also had a “Committee for the Movement of Writing” that covered the streets and walls with poems singing the praises of life in the People’s Communes and pictures in which farmers picked cotton on ladders, tall silos pierced through clouds, and pigs, as big as cows, were bursting their sties.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958.

If all this does not sound busy and tiring enough, study sessions and debates were held frequently. For study, there was the People’s Daily that sent the Center’s directives everyday. But what was to debate? People—whoever expressed any doubt about the Great Leap Forward and whoever was perceived as being halfhearted or lazy were the objects of the debate. According to documentation, the debatees were encircled, “shoved and pushed…until they were bruised and dizzy, kowtouing to admit they were wrong.” The debates were indeed effective, and, according to a piece in the People’s Daily on April 17, 1958, that promoted Xushui’s practices, “before the debates, 1,400 workers only dug 300 meters of irrigation channel in 14 days; after the debates, 1,000 workers dug 500 meters in 3 days.” In July that year, the Party mounted a nationwide campaign called “Bare Your Heart to the Party” and everyone in the Xinhua group was required to describe his or her thoughts and actions during the recent Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Rectification Campaign. During the Purge of Anti-revolutionary Within Campaign in 1955, Uncle Erning, a young man in his twenties, had been reviewed for the uncompleted drafts of poems and stories that he had scribbled during the post-Korean war days when he was still stationed in North Korea as a war correspondent for the Xinhua News Agency, and conclusions had been made that “the ideas behind his works are reactionary and his own thoughts backward.” Now, asked to speak his mind to the Party, he hesitated. He was scared, “knowing that …the consequences will be serious.” Yet he didn’t want to hide it from the Party, “feeling that it would constitute unloyalty and dishonesty to the Party and therefore a crime.” So he bared himself: “I am still unable to accept the conclusions made about me by the Agency, but I am willing to be tested by the Party for as long as needed, reform myself and prove myself through my actions.” Days after that, Uncle Erning was arrested without warning during an often-held mass gathering of ten thousand people. He was dumbfounded, for he had no idea why they were arresting him (he had committed no crime) and how, in a matter of days, he had been incriminated a step higher to “a reactionary” and expelled from his job at Xinhua. Three hundred people were arrested on the same occasion, including Sheng Shuren. Now I know that, Xushui had newly built three labor camps that year and a local leader had ordered, “Each camp needs 1,000 workers, hurry up to arrest people and send them to the camps.” Within a few months, more than four thousand people had been arrested in the same manner in Xushui.

Uncle Erning and Sheng Shuren were sent to the August First Camp to receive their “education through hard labor.” Behind the barbed wire enclosing the Camp, they were organized, just as people outside, to create “Satellite Fields”—fields that would have such unheard-of high yield that it would be like launching a satellite. They dug, composted, moved rocks, and made cotton-padded shoes in the winter for perhaps the army. Outside the barbed wire, Xushui was becoming the center of attention in all China. Waves of visitors, from leaders of the country to the leaders of the provinces to the generals of the Republic, from the Congress of People’s Representatives to members of the People’s Consultation Committee, from scientist to literary figures, from foreign diplomats to friendly foreign news reporters, swarmed the place to witness the spectacular new look of a communist county. The People’s Daily touted that “the People’s Communes in Xushui will bring their members, in the near future, to the most wonderful arcadia in human history, that is, the free kingdom where ‘everyone does his best and takes whatever he needs.’” The frenzy peaked in August 4, 1958, when Mao Zedong visited a village in Xushui, only a few miles from the Camp where Sheng Shuren and Uncle Erning were confined. Local officials answered the Great Leader’s questions and briefed him about their goals: 10,000 kilos of millet and 500,000 kilos of potato per mu (about 0.16 acre), so on and so forth. “How are you going to eat that much food? What are you going to do with it?” Mao asked. When the officials conceded that they had not thought about that, Mao laughed and continued, “It’s certainly good to have a lot of food. The state doesn’t want it, others don’t need it, and the farmers can eat five meals a day!” We all know what followed was not the question of eating three meals or five meals a day, but a famine that lasted for a few years, resulted in the death of millions, and was labeled “the three-year natural disaster” by the official history book. In Xushui, the famine started as early as in 1959, people left en mass to search for food, and the government set up barriers and checkpoints on roads to stop them from leaving. At the end of 1960, the August First Camp was disbanded, and Uncle Erning and Sheng Shuren, greenish and edematous, were dismissed and told to go back to their respective hometown.

I must add now that, while Uncle Erning was in the camp, in Beijing, meetings were held to criticize and “educate” his young wife, my aunt, who was given the choice of being associated with a reactionary or “drawing a line” between him and her. She had been expelled from the Youth League for dragging her feet. Finally she wrote a letter to Erning in the Camp, telling him she had signed the divorce certificate which was brought to her by two men, all filled out and dated already, bearing the name and the seal of the People’s Court. The couple then had only been married for eleven months.


Part 1,  Part 2, Part 3, Part 5

Sheng Shuren: A Journalist in New China – Part 3

By Yaxue Cao, published: June 27, 2012


On the morning of Christmas Eve as my family and I were getting ready to go to North Carolina to visit my parents-in-law, I received an email from Mr. Sheng Liren whose information I had found on the same school alumni page. He is Sheng Shuren’s brother, seventeen years his junior, a retired professor of mathematics. Before I accidentally heard Sheng Shuren’s story from Erjia, he seemed to be the only person I could potentially find, so I wrote him a letter and sent it to the School of Mathematical Sciences of Anhui University where he had taught before retiring. I did this just to give a try without really expecting too much—perhaps he had moved; even if he got it, it didn’t mean he would respond. I said in my letter that I wanted to write the story of Mr. Sheng Shuren; but he could be one of those people who tells you to “stay away from history,” or even if he wanted to tell the story of his brother, it was entirely another matter whether he would entrust it to a stranger. Narrative is such a dangerous thing. Something happens, seemingly straightforward, but how it can surprise us when it is narrated. It can be a pleasant, even amazing, surprise of course; but more often, god knows what it will become when breathed out through a narrator’s words, and how it can, in a hundred different ways, make one feel wrong.

He said he and his wife had recently come back from visiting their son in Washington, DC’s Maryland suburbs, and it would have been so easy for us to meet. But then again, he said, the letter might get lost if he was not around. To my surprise, the arrest and dismissal I knew and referred to in my letter was the second time for his brother. The first time, he was removed from the Xinhua News Agency on Trotskyite spy suspicion. Both times when he went to Xinhua, said Mr. Sheng, my father advised him not to go, but both times he didn’t listen, and it must be fate for him to end like that. He said, my brother died on the streets of Shanghai without a family member at his side and a stranger closed his eyes for him. As though to soothe himself, Mr. Sheng added, perhaps it was his luck that the good god took him to heaven with a pair of wheels from a life worse than death. It was a comfort to me that Mr. Sheng also mentioned “the responsibility not to forget,” even though I myself didn’t say so in my letter. It would be too much of a goal for me to lay claim to, not to say it is all but impossible as generations of people have already vanished, the last of them on the brink of vanishing, along with their stories. Most of the survivors, during the last years of their life when they had been reinstated and enjoyed “freedom,” kept complete silence about what they had gone through. If possible, I just want to tell, if only obliquely, the story of one man that I happen to have stumbled onto that hurt me deeply and will not go away. At the end of his letter, Mr. Sheng apologized for writing so much the first time and for the little outburst he could not contain. I wrote him back immediately thanking him for his reply, so much more on a day when lights decorated everything, the smell of roasted turkey and the sound of Christmas carols wafted in the air, and everyone was on their way home for the holiday.

Police station on Gordon Road.

Police station on Gordon Road.

When I called Mr. Sheng after the Christmas, we started from Sheng Shuren’s two stints at Xinhua. My brother graduated from St. John’s around 1942, Mr. Sheng said, I was only a little boy and I remember my family attending his graduation ceremony and him wearing the robe and holding me up for pictures. Shanghai then was under Japanese occupation; jobs were hard to come by. His first job was as a translator at the Gorden Road Police Station. Later, he passed exams to work first for the North China Daily News and then The China Weekly Review. Perhaps it paid too little to work for the papers, Mr. Sheng said, he found employment at the British Consulate in Shanghai on The Bund. That was the last job he held before Shanghai was liberated. He had already married then and had two children. When Shanghai was liberated, he was very happy. The Communists weren’t strangers to him: he had developed good feelings toward them at The China Weekly Review, and Qian Zhengying, the younger sister of his best friend Qian Weifan from St. John’s, was a communist party member while studying at Datong University in Shanghai and later became the Deputy Minister of Water Resources of the republic. The Qians frequented our house when I was little, said Mr. Sheng, and they spent time together all the time. At the same time, his jobs had exposed him to the elite of the ruling Nationalists and he loathed their rottenness. Now the country had a new regime, he could finally have a career in journalism that he wanted so badly, so he set his mind on working for the Xinhua News Agency which, in turn, welcomed him with equal enthusiasm. My father had his reservations, Mr. Sheng said, and advised him not to go, while his friends from the Consulate, which had moved to Hong Kong, urged him to join them. He expressly rejected them all.

Xinhua News Agency in 1950s, on the site of the National Congress of the Republic of China that communist China ended.

Up until now, Mr. Sheng had been speaking evenly and matter-of-factly, a sudden stress then fell on the word “expressly”, ejecting it out of the sentence. I totally understand the choice of the man, a journalist by training: Now that China is unified, has a better regime, if I can work for the highest news agency in my own country, why do I want to be employed by a foreign consulate where I, a foreign national, don’t have a viable prospect? When in 1950 Sheng Shuren moved to Beijing, with his wife and two young children, how he envisioned his career at Xinhua as a journalist, I can only imagine. The news from Beijing was that, his job was listening, all day long wearing headphones, to the English broadcast of the western countries, especially the Voice of America, transcribing, translating and presenting it to the leaders of the Communist Central Committee. And the head of the Agency thought highly of him. From what I have read, the International Department of the Xinhua News Agency was, at the time, the only place in China that had access to foreign media, and three binders of Information Compendium for Reference, over ten thousand words together, were produced and sent to the desks of the Party’s leaders each and every day at fixed hours in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Of the non-stop waves of political campaigns in the 1950s, I know the Land Reform, Suppression of the Anti-revolutionary, Three-Antis and Five-Antis Campaigns, Purge of the Anti-revolutionary Within, Anti-Rightist Campaign, and the Anti-Right-leaning Campaign, but I have never heard of the Purge of the Trotskyites. It refers to the sudden arrest and the subsequent imprisonment of so-called Trotskyite suspects that occurred simultaneously in major cities nationwide in the evening of December 22, 1952. It was the day after Stalin’s birthday, and it is said to be Mao’s birthday gift to Stalin. Like all purges of the Communists, it was violent and presumes people guilty for their faintest associations. My brother was suspected of being a Trotskyite spy, said Mr. Sheng, because there were self-proclaimed Trotskyites among St. John’s students who might have been his classmates or even friends; also, all the jobs my brother had had before the Liberation had to do with foreigners one way or the other, and in the eyes of the Party, every square inch of him was suspicious. After his arrest, his wife returned to Shanghai with their three children—the third was born in Beijing and still a baby.

The review of him went on for over a year, said Mr. Sheng, and during that time my mother travelled to Beijing to visit him, staying with my eldest sister. After obtaining a referral from Xinhua for her visit, a rickshaw my sister had hired took her to a prison. My mother showed the people there her referral but was turned down. She sat outside the prison gate without leaving, hoping to try her luck again in a while. But before long, two female guards came out and drove her away harshly. My mother went back to my sister’s, saying she had heard the sound of hammers crushing stones and was convinced that her son was being subjected to punitive labor. Even more upset now, said Mr. Sheng, she went again to see my brother. Once again, they turned her down. And my mother began to cry. Who knows, said Mr. Sheng, perhaps the two women guards felt pity for her, they let the mother and son meet. My mother asked my brother whether he was doing forced labor, my brother said, No, no, I am just reading inside. (I have learned from the memoirs of other arrested Trotskyite suspects that the books they were given to read included a booklet titled Flushing out the Imperialist Spies Trotskyite Gang of Bandits.) But we would never know the truth, said Mr. Sheng, because with the guards standing next to them, he wouldn’t dare to speak the truth. I chorused in agreement. Having read enough accounts of similar meetings, I can very well imagine how those few minutes, no more than ten, of the mother and son’s meeting went, the short words and the long silence, and I have never come upon a single account of a private meeting.

A year or so later, Sheng Shuren’s case was closed, they concluded that he was not a Trotskyite, but removed him from the Xinhua News Agency anyway. In other words, the spy suspicion was still there even though they had found no evidence to support it. Returning to Shanghai, Mr. Sheng said, his brother found a job in a high school and taught Chinese. Chinese? I was surprised. Of course, don’t you know? Said Mr. Sheng, schools then taught Russian only, and English was deemed a reactionary, capitalist language. Of course I know, but how easily we forget things. He taught for a while, said Mr. Sheng, and around 1956, the Xinhua News Agency wanted him back. This time, my father opposed it vehemently, arguing he would be better off staying in his teaching job in Shanghai. Once again, he didn’t listen. Two years later, said Mr. Sheng, we learned from a letter of his that things had gone wrong yet again.

Part 1,  Part 2, Part 4, Part 5

Sheng Shuren: A Journalist in New China – Part 2

By Yaxue Cao, published: June 26, 2012


Erjia, who was only a couple of years older than Sheng ’s oldest son, called Sheng “Shuren Dage” (树人大哥) or Big Brother Shuren, and Sheng Shuren called Erjia “Jia Di” (“家弟”) or Little Brother Jia. Shuren Dage and Jia Di did not cook and ate in a neighborhood canteen mainly for the neighborhood factory workers. There, Erjia’s two favorite items, steamed dumpling and pickled duck egg, sold for 5 cents a piece. Going Dutch, the two men lived on twenty yuan a month. Sheng Shuren’s mother was sick, and the two men often went to a general store together to rent oxygen bags for her (she died not too long after Erjia left). When there was nothing better to do, the two roamed Shanghai’s streets and down the east bank of the Huangpu River. Sheng Shuren suffered from nerve compression syndrome, walked slowly and had to stop often to rest. The two liked to sit in the People’s Square. After so many years, Erjia has forgotten the name of the square but remembered that Shuren Dage told him it used to be the race course of Shanghai. I found out the name following this clue. Shuren Dage told Jia Di that someone offered one thousand yuan to buy his St. John’s University diploma, but it could be sold for at least two thousand yuan in Hong Kong. He mentioned that he had been suspected of being a spy. He said there were a lot of errors in Xinhua’s English broadcast (apparently he listened to it), he wrote them down, corrected them and sent his corrections to Xinhua. Erjia looked at Shuren Dage in disbelief: Why are you doing that? They wronged you! Besides, they don’t care about your corrections!

Shanghai race course

After settling down in Shuren Dage’s house, Erjia went to visit a friend of his own eldest brother from his army years. The friend violently objected to Erjia’s staying with Sheng Shuren. “You can’t have contact with someone like him!” He shrieked. Erjia was taken aback: Isn’t he the same as my brother Erning? “No!” the friend shouted. “He is not the same as you and your brother!” Erjia found such discrimination arbitrary and unreasonable, and, forty years later, he described his reaction at the time as being “shocked.” Rather than staying with his brother’s friend as the latter insisted, Erjia returned to Shuren Dage.

Sheng Shuren taught English privately. When Erjia was there, he had three students, three young but grown men whose identities were unclear to Erjia and whose classes alternated, each lasting one and half hours. Sheng also taught at students’ homes. Sometimes when the two were outside, Shuren Dage would ask Jia Di to wait wherever they were for him for an hour and a half, and they would continue when he returned. Shuren Dage told Jia Di that, if Erjia stayed in Shanghai for two years, he would have taught him English. To this proposition, Erjia giggled and shook his head: something as foreign as English is not for me. I told Erjia that, Sheng Shuren started teaching English soon after his return from Xushui, and at least one of his students came from as far as Wuxi, more than a hundred miles away. On the web I found one Mr. Qian on a local listing who wrote that, after graduating from high school in 1962, “I studied English from Mr. Sheng Shuren, a graduate of St. John’s University, following my father’s instructions.” Erjia marveled how great Sheng Shuren’s English was. Always embarrassed when people who don’t know English effuse praise over others’ ability of English, I hurried to supply Erjia the evidence: St. John’s University was an all-English university, and Mr. Sheng had worked for the two best English publications, and also for the British mission, in Shanghai. Erjia said Sheng Shuren was talkative, but when I asked about their conversations during those two months, he couldn’t remember anymore. Was he a “rightist” (victims of the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957)? I asked Erjia. Erjia thought about it and said, No, never heard of him, or Erning, mentioning it. Did he talk about what had happened in Xushui? This time Erjia did not hesitate: No, never. He didn’t mention it, and I didn’t ask. Besides, Erjia added, it was such a shameful thing, and who would want to talk about it?

A trip to Shanghai was a big deal, if not a once-in-a-lifetime event; Erjia had a long list of things to acquire for family and friends, good stuff that only Shanghai had to offer as well as things hard to get hold of in Liaoning. At the time, to buy a bicycle you had to have a government-issued voucher, and the vouchers were hard to come by without back-door connections. In Shanghai, though, where bicycles were made, vouchers were sold 15 yuan a piece on the black market, in the basement of the Municipal First Department Store where deals were made with furtive eye contact and hand gestures. Erjia bought one, and with it, bought a bicycle in Shanghai that was still cheaper than in Anshan, shipping included. The two of them went to buy shoes, Shuren Dage changed on the spot into the new shoes he had just bought for himself, leaving Erjia the bewildered impression that the Shanghainese were a very “different” kind of people. As Erjia’s departure approached, the two men went to the grocery store one morning to purchase cutlass fish. Limited to one kilo per unique purchase but not by the number of purchases, they got in line repeatedly to buy enough to salt-preserve them. When Erjia left Shanghai, he carried no less than eleven luggage bags, large and small, the content including a pot of lard, a bag of flour, a Triple-Five wall clock, five kilos of preserved cutlass fish, three bags of clothes and shoes, two bags of Big White Rabbit soft candies, and more. Plus the bicycle. Shuren Dage prepared two gift boxes of Shanghai traditional pastries from the City God Temple market for Erjia to take home; for his friend Erning, he brought two tins of tea leaves. On the day when Erjia left, Shuren Dage saw him off on the dock and told him to come back to visit again. It took a long time to board the ship and for it to leave, and Shuren Dage stood on the dock until the ship set sail before walking away slowly.

It was either in 1976 or 1977, Erjia received a letter from Sheng Shuren’s wife, telling him that he had died in a car accident. With that letter in his hand, Erjia teared up for days on end.

Shanghai alley

Chiefly a paper for commerce and trade and the longest running, the North China Daily News was a British newspaper founded in Shanghai in 1850, and ceased publishing in 1951 due to the new China’s restriction on the activities of foreign media. On the other hand, The China Weekly Review, appeared in 1917 in Shanghai, was a political journal supposedly fashioned after the New Republic. A few things about the magazine left impressions on me over the course of my research. First, it is the magazine where Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star over China, began his journalistic career when he came to China in 1928. In November, 1936, the weekly published, in two consecutive issues, “Meeting with Mao Tse-tung, the Communist Leader” and, with it, the iconic photo of Mao in gray cotton jacket and gray red-army cap in front of his cave dwelling in Yen’an. Second, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, the weekly was suspended and John Benjamin Powell, the editor and publisher, was arrested in 1941 and lost both feet to torture. Third, the journal was known for its relentless criticism of the then ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomingtang, and, following the victory of World War II, it editorialized to support a “free, democratic, prosperous and united China.”

China Weekly Review, collection of the library of Congress.

In its first issue after the liberation of Shanghai in May 1949, the journal stated that “we therefore welcome the change that has come about and hope that the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army will mark the beginning of a new era—an era in which the people of China can now begin to enjoy the benefits of good government” and that the magazine “will endeavor to reflect honestly and fairly the development of the new China, especially the concept of democracy of the Chinese communist party.” In 1952, the journal published the diary of Rewi Alley, the New Zealand writer and educator, in which he enthused that Beijing was a “city of hope” and “a paradise for the young men and women growing up in the new era.” Finally, when the magazine folded in 1953 and its editor John W. Powell returned to the US, the US government charged him, his wife and another editor for printing false statements about the United States military using germ weapons against Chinese troops in North Korea. The trial was declared a mistrial by the judge and the subsequent attempt by the government to bring charges of treason against them was unsuccessful because it failed to obtain indictments. Later, with the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the remaining sedition charges against the three were dropped.

In the communist partyspeak, “progressive” means pro-communist, and one—anyone—is either an enemy or a friend of the party. By this yardstick, The China Weekly Review was clearly progressive and definitely a friend. About its cessation, the sources I read said unanimously that it was due to financial difficulties caused by the American embargo. That might or might not be, but every Chinese, even a child, knew that, the journal—or any publication not directly controlled by the Party—could no longer exist, with or without financial woes. As his case was dropped in the US in 1961, Powell probably did not know that, the Chinese journalists he knew or worked with, including a young man once employed by his magazine by the name Sheng Shuren, had mostly been struck down, during a succession of purges, as “reactionary,” “anti-socialist,” “rightist,” “right-leaning element,” “spy,” “anti-communist party element,” “anti-revolutionary,” “class enemy,” or “traitor,” and none had the right to defend him/herself, let alone to have a fair trial. If a few lucky ones were spared in the 1950s, they would have been rounded up, without exception, a few years later in mid 1960s when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began.

Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5