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One Editor's Fight for Free Press : Retired Chinese News Official Recalls His Battles With the State

August 13, 1986|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Xu Chengshi believes that his life, along with the lives of the rest of his generation, has mostly been wasted.

A retired international news editor for China's official government press service, Xinhua (New China) News Agency, Xu has been honored as Editor, First Class by the State Council. American peers consider him feisty and even brilliant.

But during a recent trip to Orange County to visit a relative, Xu said the Sino-Japanese war of the late 1930s crippled his youthful literary and university aspirations, while the Cultural Revolution three decades later ruined his middle years, compromising his ideals, separating him from his family and landing him in jail for five years.

Inspiring Others

His jaw set, his eyes brimming, Xu said of the Cultural Revolution, "I resented it. I protested it. But I went along."

Now 64, Xu said he is determined to salvage what remains of his working years by inspiring the next generation of Chinese journalists to be independent and aggressive; he also plans to retranslate the works of Mark Twain for a Chinese publishing house.

Currently he is a visiting lecturer at Stanford University.

Xu (his last name is pronounced "shu") learned English as a child from his father, a professor of classical Chinese literature who spoke several languages. During World War II, Xu worked as an interpreter under Gen. Joseph Stilwell's program to train Chinese troops.

After the war, he worked for two American agencies, the U.S. China Relief Mission and the Economic Cooperation Administration. He turned down an invitation by an American superior to flee with the Nationalist Chinese to Taiwan. Nevertheless, as a former employee of the Americans, Xu said, he became a "sitting duck for repudiation and even I would say persecution" with the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

Considered a "class enemy," he was required to submit a statement of his personal views on political aspects of the revolution. He worded the "confession" to protect himself, he said, but nevertheless spoke his mind and criticized some leaders of the revolution, including Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing.

As a result of the statement plus his past American association, he was labeled a "vicious enemy" of the Cultural Revolution, suspended from duty as a journalist and jailed for five years, the first 18 months in solitary confinement. During those months, he said, he talked to himself and muttered poems so that he would not forget English.

His wife, Chen Wenjing, an acting teacher and film director, and his daughter were sent to labor farms.

After his release and "rehabilitation" (return to his job with a cleared political status), he said, he honestly wanted to follow the widely accepted advice: "Post a guard at your mouth. Think twice, even three or four times before you make a remark."

These days, Xu, who does not belong to the Communist Party, still watches his words and chooses carefully those that will appear in print. But he is "eyed as a dissident. I make no bones about my conviction there should be a free and enterprising press."

Chinese journalists now "mainly have to follow the Party line." Although the line has changed, he said, it's still the party line. Someone who makes a mistake, for instance, might receive a letter from the Department of Propaganda saying, "We have conducted a recent survey and believe your coverage of the West is really too favorable."

Before Richard Nixon's 1972 visit softened U.S.-China relations, every mention of the United States had to refer to "U.S. imperialism," he said. One story in which he suggested that "U.S. imperialism" be used only on first reference and United States used thereafter was returned to him for revision.

When the going got tough, however, he could not quit, because under the Chinese system of state-controlled work, there would be no other job for him.

In 1976, he said, an earthquake in the mining town of Tangsahn killed 800,000 people and damaged much of Tianjin, a large city near Beijing. But the news received only about four lines in the People's Daily, he said. "Word came down," he said, that spreading the news would only create a panic. Xu now calls that argument "untenable" but at the time he had just been released from prison and could not speak out.

About a similar Soviet reaction to the Chernobyl disaster this spring, Xu said he is sympathetic but disapproving. "So many countries were involved. They should have reported it fast and objectively. It was a golden chance to build up the image of an honest press."

Although he was not in China at the time, he said the Chinese press most likely would have printed the first Tass report of the nuclear accident and then perhaps followed up with Western reports. "Sometimes we do that."

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