Essays, Translation

Four Fates in a Changing China22 min read

An exclusive new essay by Yu Hua, translated by Allan H. Barr

Translator’s note: Yu Hua, though best known as the author of novels such as the internationally acclaimed To Live, is also an essayist of note. Since 2009, when he first wrote for the Western press – in the form of an op-ed for the New York Times to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1989 student protests – he has published some two dozen essays on a wide variety of topics, including censorship, piracy and corruption in China, not to mention his nonfiction book of memoir and reflection China in Ten Words. This latest essay can be read as a companion piece to his recent article that charted changing trends in Chinese society over the last 40 years. – Allan Barr


By the end of this year, China will have seen 40 years of economic reform and interaction with the outside world – 40 years in which China has undergone earthshaking changes. In 1978 China’s total GDP was 367.8 billion RMB ($150 billion in current US dollars); by 2017 it stood at 82.7 trillion RMB  ($12 trillion). China’s economy has grown at a phenomenal rate, and of course prices have been soaring too. In 1993 Zhang Yimou paid me 50,000 RMB ($7200 at current exchange rates) for the film rights to my novel To Live. In those days my wife and I lived in a room of just eight square meters, and for us this was an astronomical sum. We laid the money underneath our pillow, and before going to bed each night we would take it out and gaze at it, dumbstruck that we had made enough to last a lifetime. It was days before we could bring ourselves to deposit the money in the bank. Nowadays, if you were to try to buy a house in Beijing with 50,000 yuan, you would only get one square meter.

As the economy grows, Chinese society is also changing dramatically. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, radical left-wing thought seemed to have run its course, and liberal ideas began to gain currency, leading in time to the Tiananmen protests of 1989. The suppression of that movement utterly deflated Chinese people’s enthusiasm for politics, and we entered an era when everyone engaged in commerce. A society in which politics came first was transformed into a society where money was all that mattered. Now, as social issues such as corruption, pollution and income inequality grow more and more pronounced, the radical left thinking that seemed to have run out of steam has made its way back, as though all the time it had just been doing a shuttle run.

As I see it, a radical left-wing society is abnormal, and so too is a radical right-wing society. Chinese society today could be said to be fairly normal, with leftists and rightists and radical leftists and radical rightists; the largest group is the people in the middle. I should note that today’s radical left differs from the radical left in the Cultural Revolution – leftists today are no longer blind supporters of the people in power. Not long ago, when employees of Jasic Technology in Shenzhen set up an independent labor union, they were attacked by the government, because unions in China are all under the leadership of the Communist Party and union leaders are appointed by the government. The employees did not want a government-run union, they wanted one of their own. In a confrontation with the police, the people who went to Shenzhen to support the independent union were not rightists who value democratic freedoms, but rather leftists – people labeled as followers of Mao Zedong. This incident signaled that social forms in China today are complex and convoluted. I make this point, however, simply as an introduction to my topic today: how social changes in China have affected people on the individual level.

A society in which politics came first was transformed into a society where money was all that mattered

Chinese youth today are unlikely to have such complex lives as people of my generation. When I was younger, a shared interest in literature brought me into contact with a number of individuals, and over the years they moved in very different directions: some went into business and made fortunes; some went into government and now hold high positions; some ended up in prison; some are still writing; some, sadly, have died.

Here I have to exercise some discretion in deciding whose stories I can recount and whose I cannot yet share, whose names I can state plainly and whose I should withhold. At the same time, I need a common thread that will connect these individual histories. After weighing up various options, I have chosen incarceration as the unifying link, because quite a few people I know have experienced dramatic ups and downs and have found themselves in prison, although for quite different reasons. Of the four people I am going to write about, one I still see and two I have completely lost touch with; the last one is dead.

One evening in the late 1990s, I received a phone call from a publisher friend based in Guangzhou. My first thought was that he was visiting Beijing and wanted to set up a meeting, but this was not the case at all: he had been sent to prison, he told me, and was calling me from there. As I was absorbing this news, he asked me to do him a favor by sending a few copies of my books to the prison warden. So I grabbed pen and paper and wrote down the name and address. Before hanging up, he asked me to be sure to sign each book and write inscriptions to the warden.

In China, private individuals are not allowed to create publishing companies, but more than 20 years ago, because state-owned publishing houses were so set in their ways that they could not keep up with the rapid development of the economy, unofficial publishers rushed to fill the gap. They would purchase book numbers from state publishing houses and then publish books that they found appealing, and this sparked a publishing boom. My friend from Guangzhou had been a high-flyer in the publishing business. Every time he came to Beijing he would stay at the most expensive hotel he could find, and I was always struck by how freely he threw his money around. It came as a great shock to learn that he was now in prison.

It was only later I learned the reason. In those days the asking price for a book number was 10,000 RMB ($1440 today), and to save himself this expense he had surreptitiously carved over a dozen company seals and then released books under false pretenses, attributing them to those official publishing houses; when the scams were detected, he was charged with fraud and sentenced to ten years. On his release, a long time later, he again placed a call to me, but I wasn’t at home and he left a message to say that he was now back in Guangzhou. That was the last I heard of him.

On another occasion, it was an old classmate from elementary and middle school who called me from prison. He had reached the pinnacle of his career when he became manager of our home county’s broadcasting station. Whenever I went back to my hometown to visit family, he would organize a classmate reunion, billing all the food and drink to his expense account without a second thought. By then society was already divided into the haves and have-nots, and some of our classmates had lost their jobs. At one of these get-togethers, his smug, arrogant manner triggered a reaction from an unfortunate classmate who’d just been made redundant. The two men began to quarrel, and then it became a fight. After that, on my visits back home he would no longer arrange large-scale reunions but opted for intimate gatherings, where the only invitees were those with successful careers.

He had been sent to prison, he told me, and asked me to send a few copies of my books to the prison warden

It was my brother who alerted me that my old classmate had been arrested on suspicion of economic crimes, and soon I received a call from him in prison. Just like the Guangzhou publisher, he asked me to sign books for his prison warden, the only difference being that he didn’t ask me to send them directly to the prison, but to his wife, who would present them to the warden on her next visit.

On his release he told me that after the warden received those signed copies he was given the best job available – editor of the prison magazine. Prisoners who earlier had bullied him now rushed to lick his boots, because you could get a reduced sentence if your essays were printed in the magazine.

“Those guys who made your life a misery – can they really all write?” I asked him.

They couldn’t, he said – other people were commissioned to do the work. Their families would pay the ghostwriters, then bring their pieces into the prison next time they visited.

After his release this friend set up a company of his own, and aided by two temporary workers he installed solar panels for people who had just moved into new homes. He designed the panels himself, he told me – and owned the intellectual property rights to his particular brand of solar energy. He spent an hour describing to me in lavish detail the sophistication of his product line, although the only thing I understood was that he believed his solar energy to be the most advanced in the world. A few years later I called him up on one of my visits home and his phone rang for ages before he picked up. He was installing solar panels for a customer, he explained, and he had been hanging outside a 20th-floor balcony in a safety harness, so it wasn’t convenient to chat – he would come and see me that evening. After I hung up, the first thought I had was that this man was now in his fifties.

On another afternoon – this must have been in 2001 or so – I was walking along the street in Xidan, central Beijing, when my phone rang and an unfamiliar voice asked me if I was Yu Hua. The caller introduced himself as a policeman attached to the economic investigations arm of Beijing Public Security.

I was taken aback. “Why are you calling me?” I said. “I haven’t broken any laws.”

“Of course you haven’t,” he said. “If you had, we wouldn’t be calling you – we’d be arresting you.”

I laughed, and so did he. He wanted to speak to me regarding a case of economic crime, and asked when we could meet. He sounded friendly enough, so I agreed that he could visit me at home the following afternoon.

As soon as I put down the phone a name popped into my mind: Lü Liang. I had first met him at the home of a literary editor in the winter of 1988, when he was an artist and author. I was just about to publish my first collection of short stories, and the publisher wanted to have a sketch of me on the cover. But I had only just moved to Beijing and knew only some editors and critics – nobody at all in art circles. After a few days, Lü Liang took me to the Central Academy of Arts and got hold of Xu Bing, who is now a big name in the Chinese art world.

At that time Xu Bing lived in a single room of about ten square meters; we sat down and chatted, and as we talked Xu Bing casually sketched my portrait. He did two sketches; in one I looked like a thinker, and in the other I looked like a beggar. I preferred the second one and so did Lü Liang, and that was the picture I took away with me. I passed it on to the publisher, who gave it to the printer, and once the printer had done the typesetting he tossed the sketch in the trash. A couple of years ago Xu Bing asked me if I still remembered his picture. I felt a pang of regret that I had not photocopied it and given the copy to the publisher – I should have hung on to the original.

Later, Xu Bing went to the United States, but Lü Liang and I continued to see each other until he moved to southern China and we lost touch. When he eventually returned to Beijing and I saw him again, he was trading in stocks. This would have been about 1996, a time when all kinds of chaotic phenomena were appearing in Chinese society and the fluctuations in the value of Chinese stocks were largely manipulated by speculators. These people would buy a class of low-valued stocks, then constantly release news of their favorable prospects, and quietly sell the stocks off when their price rose to an artificially high level.

Most such news items, needless to say, were completely fictitious, for in those days stock-traders were even more skilled at making up stories that we novelists are. I remember visiting Lü Liang’s office in the Xizhimen suburb of Beijing when he was not yet a speculator but simply someone who bought and sold stocks in response to the trends of the day. As we chatted, his phone was constantly ringing with tips about all kinds of stocks. It seemed he could judge expertly which were good bets, and after making his purchases he would call other people up and urge them to jump in and buy stocks of the same company that he had just bought into.

A few years later, I heard that he had moved into a luxury apartment. I never went there, but online I have found a report that described the place in this way: “Lü Liang lives in the North Star Garden Villas in Asian Games Village, in a huge mansion in Beijing’s most sought-after neighborhood, a true haven for the wealthy. Two years ago, he purchased Block No. 5 by spending ten million yuan at one go, connecting what were once dozens of rooms. The guiding principle that he asked his architect to observe took the form of two simple words: ‘Waste Space.’ On completion of the remodel, the two-story building of over a thousand square meters in area only has four or five bedrooms, the rest of the space being devoted to two enormous living rooms on each floor, each several hundred square meters in size. Just a few exquisitely designed items of furniture and decorative items are scattered about, as if to demonstrate the vastness of the living rooms and their unique character. This alone is enough to take one’s breath away.”

In China a lot transpires under cover of dark, and we can see only the things that happen in daylight

As his ambition swelled, Lü Liang was no longer satisfied with just following the lead of a speculator – he himself became a speculator, a so-called “crocodile,” a bigshot in China’s securities market. His most famous stunt was to repackage a market-listed company called Kangda’er, transforming this former poultry company into a biopharmaceutical and high-tech “China Venture Capital Group.” Lü Liang made full use of his own talents as an author, for the so-called biopharmaceutical and high-tech enterprises were basically all fabricated, but news of the overhaul was trumpeted repeatedly in company bulletins and hyped up by all kinds of investment analysts, analysis reports and analysis organizations.

As the biopharmaceuticals and high-tech companies took shape out of nothing, the stock price soared from 17 yuan to 80 yuan a share. In due course there followed the crash of China Venture Capital Group, and Lü Liang’s detention by the police on suspicion of economic crimes. In those days, when streets in Beijing were dotted with news stalls, every time I went out Lü Liang’s eyes would be gazing at me from the covers of practically every finance and economics magazine, with captions like “Speculator Lü Liang” blazoned below his photograph. It was a notorious case, and a thorough investigation had been authorized, it was said, at the highest levels. But what was strange was that, just when Lü Liang was just days away from a lengthy prison term, he managed to fly the coop, disappearing without trace.

Such was the backdrop to that phone call from Beijing Public Security. When Lü Liang made his escape, he left behind his telephone book, in which my name was listed – along with many others. Two young policemen came to my apartment and politely showed me their police ID; one began quizzing me while the other took notes. First I was asked how I knew Lü Liang, and many other questions followed, ending with when was the last time I had seen him. More than a year ago, at a concert, I told them. Finally, they asked me to read the transcript of my responses and confirm my acknowledgement with signature and thumbprint. The two cops looked worn and weary, and it occurred to me that there must be two or three hundred phone numbers in Lü Liang’s book, and that they would have to interview every single one of us. Sure enough, later I learned from a friend of mine – an academic, who had met Lü Liang only once – that he got a call from Public Security the moment he got off a plane after returning from an overseas trip.

It was only when the two young policemen came to visit that I learned Lü Liang had escaped. I asked them how he had managed to carry that off, but they declined to answer. They simply left a phone number, with instructions that if Lü Liang was ever to contact me, I was to inform them immediately. It was probably a year later that one of them phoned and asked if I had heard from Lü Liang. I said no. If Lü Liang contacted me, I was to let them know at once, he said. “All right,’ I said, “and likewise, if you find Lü Liang, please let me know.” “Okay,” he said.

Later I did learn how Lü Liang escaped – it wasn’t the police who told me but another friend. According to surveillance video footage, Lü Liang had made his getaway when the policemen guarding him had fallen asleep on the sofa. Lü Liang simply threw on an overcoat, pushed the door open and left, disappearing into the darkness of the Beijing night. The guards were disciplined for dereliction of duty, of course, but compared to the financial benefits they might possibly have gained by letting him go free, their punishment must have seemed negligible.

After Lü Liang’s disappearance, his name would often come up when I got together with mutual friends. Some said he had fled abroad, where he now lived under an assumed name; others said he was bumped off by people who wanted him dead, and the body had been destroyed in order to leave no trace behind. Earlier this year I visited a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time, and at dinner I mentioned Lü Liang and brought up these two competing theories. My friend gave me a funny look, then calmly informed me that Lü Liang was neither abroad nor dead, but still living in Beijing – he had simply changed his name and identification. Several years ago, according to this friend, Lü Liang had suddenly appeared at his office, to his utter astonishment. Lü Liang gave him a report he had written – though left unsigned – and asked him to find a way of passing it up to the top leadership of the government. It was a set of recommendations regarding how to sustain growth in China’s economy. Lü Liang had not lingered long, apparently, but had left promptly after delivering the report and never showed his face again. After hearing this account, I gave a little shudder, for in China a lot transpires under cover of dark, and we can see only the things that happen in daylight.

Finally, I want to bring Liu Xiaobo into the picture, and say something about his switch from literature to politics. In September 1986, approaching the tenth anniversary of the purge of the Gang of Four and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences held a conference to celebrate the works published during the previous ten years, and one speaker after another sang the praises of the “literature of a new era.” But when Liu Xiaobo went up to the rostrum, he totally debunked the claims that the other presenters had made, for according to him nothing of value had been written between 1976 and 1986. His iconoclasm made him an instant celebrity. At that point he was just a literature PhD at Beijing Normal University, but that single speech placed him at the same level as some famous literary critics.

The Tiananmen protests of 1989 were the turning point in Liu Xiaobo’s career. He, Hou Dejian, Gao Xin and Zhou Duo were known as the Four Gentlemen of Tiananmen Square. In the early morning of June 4, when troops entered the square, intent on clearing it, Liu Xiaobo and the others negotiated the students’ evacuation, thereby averting potential bloodshed in the square.

During a visit to the United States in 2003, I watched the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace. Facing the camera, Liu Xiaobo described the scene when he and his three colleagues arrived in the square. They had originally planned to urge the students to abandon their hunger strike and leave the square, but the impassioned, revolutionary atmosphere changed their attitude at once: not only did they not urge the students to leave, they joined the hunger strike. I can understand their sudden change of heart, for I was in Beijing then and I know what kind of feeling it was to be in Tiananmen Square – it made your blood tingle.

I would hazard a guess that were it not for the events of 1989, Liu Xiaobo might have gone on to be a professor of literature at some university, supervising doctoral candidates, but changes in society altered his fate and he went in another direction.

Not only did they not urge the students to leave [Tiananmen Square], they joined the hunger strike

On the evening of July 10 of this year, I received a WeChat message from a friend who lives in Sweden: Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s widow, had left Beijing and was on a flight to Berlin.

When I first met Liu Xia, we were both in our twenties and she was married to a writer friend of mine. They lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise in Shuangyushu, northwest of downtown Beijing. One day in late 1988 I set off from Shilipu, on the east side of the city, and after taking several buses I arrived at their building and knocked on their door. They had prepared a lavish dinner, and though I’ve forgotten what we ate, it was a memorable evening in another way, because we watched a movie together, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. The videotape had been viewed so many times that streaks would often flash across the screen as the movie advanced. Wild Strawberries had an enormous impact on me, for I’d never seen a film like it: although by then the Cultural Revolution was well in the past, many of us still lived in an cultural vacuum, and Wild Strawberries stirred me so deeply it made me feel it was the first real film I’d ever seen. It was late in the evening when I left their place, but rather than waiting at the stop for a night bus, I instead walked the 20-plus kilometers back to Shilipu – only that way could I calm the excitement inside me.

Liu Xia and her husband divorced a few years later, and I never saw her again. It was probably 20 years ago that I learned from a friend that she had married Liu Xiaobo. This surprised me a little, although I knew that Liu Xiaobo had also divorced, and I knew that he was on good terms with that writer friend of mine – now Liu Xia’s ex – and had been a regular visitor to their home.

Fate must have meant for Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo to be together. As the story goes, they had been out of touch for several years, but met on a train. Liu Xiaobo inquired about Liu Xia’s husband, and she said she didn’t know his current circumstances – they had been divorced for several years. Liu Xia inquired about Liu Xiaobo’s wife; he said they too had been divorced for some time. Then they lapsed into silence. After the silence, Liu Xiaobo suggested that they live together, and Liu Xia happily agreed. That’s the story I heard, at any rate, and it sounds both realistic and romantic – though I can’t vouch for its veracity.

In 1993, not too long after Liu Xiaobo’s release after his first term in prison, a filmmaker friend invited me to a meal with him. It was our first encounter, and it would be our last. Liu Xiaobo was a literary critic by training, and at this point he was still one. Our views about literature differed significantly, and so we began to argue; soon things escalated into a quarrel. For the rest of the meal we tried to ignore each other, though I’m sure he must have seen the same look of disgust on my face that I saw on his.

In early July of last year I heard that Liu Xiaobo had been admitted to a hospital in Shenyang, gravely ill. When I learned of his death, ten days later, I left my study and went out to the living room to share the news with my wife. “What a terrible shame!” I said. Now, a year later, that long-ago squabble of ours has become a fond memory. ∎

Translated by Allan H. Barr.