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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.

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