After Liu Binyan had finished his speech last Sunday, the audience filled the jam-packed room with robust talk about this muckraking journalist from China.
Those who came to Monterey Park City Hall reflected the voices and politics of many areas and points of view: from Beijing to Hong Kong to Taipei.
One listener who grew up in Shanghai heralded Liu as a hero, a Chinese version of Andrei D. Sakhrov, the Soviet dissident.
Another, Paul Teng, a Long Beach neurosurgeon who left China 40 years ago, said: "Liu's ideas are correct. The Communists have to change. If they don't, they have no hope."
One man pointed out two women who were upset because they thought Liu was a propagandist for the Communists. "The tragedy of China today," said Yi Ling Wong of Garden Grove, "is that if you want to be fair and objective, both sides will oppose you."
And Charly Y. C. Cheung, a San Gabriel financial consultant who came to America from Canton 20 years ago, said: "I hope that both the Nationalist Chinese and the Communist Chinese will open up to what Liu says because he is the voice of the people."
In his first address to Southern California's Chinese-American community, the journalist and author known around the world did what he has done for decades in China: provoked talk about Chinese politics and about what is right and what is wrong.
Considered one of China's leading social critics today, Liu, 63, was in the forefront as a young journalist after the establishment of China's Communist government in 1949. But by the late 1950s, after he followed what he thought were leader Mao Zedong's instructions to expose governmental corruption, he was expelled from the Communist Party and sent to work in the fields.
For most of the next 22 years he was unable to work as a journalist, although he did spend eight years as a translator and researcher for a newspaper. He was rehabilitated and restored to party membership and to his job as a writer on the People's Daily, the organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Liu rose to prominence with the 1979 publication of another expose, "People or Monsters," an article that described corruption in one province. But by last year he had been expelled again from the Communist Party.
In the process he has become an international symbol--as much for his expulsion as for his work, which represents a style of literary journalistic writing. Despite his controversial stature, the Chinese government allowed him to visit the United States for a 14-month stay that will include a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, a program for distinguished working journalists.
Though not all of the 240 Chinese-Americans in attendance Sunday agreed with Liu, no one disputed that his criticisms of the Chinese bureaucracy require courage.
"Has he been in jail?" asked Tony Thai, a Los Angeles businessman who was worried that Liu's frankness would get him in trouble when he returns.
"Yes, he's been in jail," said Charly Cheung, inaccurately adding to the Liu legend.
Spoke in Mandarin
It was a special afternoon of discussion about the future of the People's Republic of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. During his talk in Mandarin, the audience questioned him about the expiration of Britain's rule of Hong Kong in 1997. They wanted to know about Taiwan and its new president, who has improved ties with the mainland, and how the Communist government is coping with young people who are pushing for changes.
Since arriving in the spring, Liu has spoken at universities throughout California, including Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA, where he teaches.
But Sunday was the first opportunity to speak to people old enough to know first-hand what Liu was talking about: modern Chinese history and politics.
Worked in Countryside
He did not need to go into detail about how he suffered in internal exile. Or how he was required to work in the countryside and attend camps at which intellectuals were schooled in proper political thinking. He knew from looking at the audience, he said, that "they had experienced a lot."
In an interview after his talk, Liu said through Zhu Hong, his wife and interpreter: "Maybe they had a lot of bitterness and suffering so they understood me. That is why they responded warmly and sympathetically. They care very much about the future of China and like me, they have high hopes for the unity of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait."
Even if they did not agree with him, Liu was a link to their homeland.
"We all have a very different personal history" but share common traits, he said.
"We all have black hair, black eyes. They are the same as I am," said Liu, whose almond-colored face is gently lined. His black hair is graying.