Interview with Xu Wenli - Main Editor of the Journal "April 5th Forum"

Interview with Xu Wenli on June 23, 1979

The author (Helmut Opletal, Chinese name 欧普雷) conducted this interview on June 23, 1979 in Xu Wenli's apartment in Beijing which also served as the editorial office of the journal. It was transcribed from a tape recording, slightly edited and first published in the Hong Kong monthly "Observer" (Guanchajia 觀察家), in it's edition no. 22 (August 1979). It was reprinted by Xu Wenli's "April 5th Forum" in November 1979. An English translation appeared first in "Chinese Law & Government" (Volume 13, 1980 - Issue 3-4) and in the Bulletin of the Society for the Protection of East Asian Human Rights (SPEAHRhead #8 Winter 1980-1981). The text of the English translation below is adapted from this issue available online.   

Date: June 23, 1979
Place: Editorial office of "April 5th Forum", 274 Baiguang Street, Beijing

Ou Pulei: When was your private paper April Fifth Forum inaugurated, and why?

Xu Wenli:  It was inaugurated in November 1978 following the reversal of the verdict on the Tiananmen Incident or during the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Party Central Committee. At that time, a democratic movement was launched by some youths who felt that the systems in our socialist country remained far from perfect and there were imperfections in our legal system. Inspired by the Tiananmen Incident, they came up with many proposals for democracy and the legal system. Later, this campaign was called the "people's democratic movement" or "socialist democratic movement," or "proletarian democratic movement." At that time, the movement took the form of the big-character posters and discussion meetings, which seemingly promised no further development. This paper was born out of a desire to further develop and perpetuate this movement. No private newspaper had ever appeared in our People's Republic since its founding thirty years ago.

Q: What are the main contents of your paper?

A: At first, our paper contained two categories of articles, namely, those emphasizing the protection of the people's basic rights, especially the right to freedom of speech, and others stressing the need for a profound transformation of our political and economic structures essential to the realization of the Four Modernizations in China. We felt that on the eve of our social transformation, many imperfect systems have prevented our society from moving forward. For example, in the past, greater  attention was paid to the transformation of the relations of production. But the need for spurring the development of productive forces was neglected. In other words, we ran the economy in a way compatible with the economic laws. The result was that without giving prior considerations to the need for boosting the productive forces to a desirable level, the intermittent transformation of the relations of production had proved ineffective in promoting their development. 

On the other hand, there were defects in our political system. For example, there has emerged a bureaucratic stratum in our socialist country. How could this occur? What remedial measures can be taken to prevent it? Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four" were the most notorious and noxious representatives of this bureaucratic stratum. Other bureaucrats were not as bad as they were. All this should be attributed to our imperfect, unhealthy and unscientific systems, which have given rise to the following questions: What caused the "Gang of Four" to rise to power? Why was nothing done to prevent the emergence of bureaucracy? Is there any guarantee to prevent their reemergence and make the laboring people the real masters of their own country? 

Our newspaper will stress both political and economic aspects in an effort to enhance our social transformation. We and our state leaders see the problems from different angles because we live at the bottom of society and they rule from the top. But we look forward to cooperating with them, and assisting them in resolving the problems facing China. 

We are worried about the future of our country and its development. In our own language, we are really concerned about our country and people, the slow development of our country, and the low living standards of people, especially peasants. Our Chinese people are as intelligent and industrious as any others. But why are they falling behind others? We want to find out this reason and solve this question. 

Q: Do you have comments on the freedom of speech and freedom of the press? 

A: Since its founding, the people in our republic have been entitled to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Our Constitution proclaimed in 1954 and its succeeding revised versions explicitly stipulate that citizens enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But this is only a statement of a general rule or principle which needs laws and institutions to back it up and put it into effect. A mere piece of paper cannot guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Just as the general public had pointed out, they exist only on the paper and cannot be put into effect. The struggle inside the party has been very complicated. When the good leaders were in power, the people could enjoy freedom of speech to a certain degree. But when Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four" rose to power, the people were deprived of freedom. 

The people could not defend their freedom of speech and freedom of the press because they had no legal basis to back them up. In the absence of constitutional clauses detailing people's right to freedom of speech, no one knows what to say and what not to say. Likewise, in the absence of a publication law, no one knows what to publish and what not to publish. In other words, so far we still have no laws guaranteeing the people's freedoms. For example, our well-known former supreme commander Peng Dehuai was a man who did everything for his country and people. But finally, he was wrongly charged and attacked for no other crimes but serving the people's interests wholeheartedly. 

As far as freedom of speech and freedom of the press are concerned, there is no firm guarantee from inside and outside the party. Although the party often promises the people freedom of speech and freedom of expression, once they really exercise it, they may get themselves into trouble. 

This was why freedom of speech became empty talk when Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four" were in power. The Chinese people, known for their prudence and cautiousness, seldom express their aspirations and demands in an explosive manner. The loopholes in our legal system must be overcome in order to provide the people with legal protection. We can foresee that the possibility of realizing freedom of speech and freedom of the press is not great. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press may gain momentum if our leaders are open-minded. Otherwise, they would be suppressed. 

Q: Do you think absolute freedom is possible? 

A: Personally, I don't think it is possible, because ruling classes in every society at all times want to enact laws to protect their interests and want to decide what freedoms can and cannot be tolerated. For example, when our Deng Xiaoping visited the United States, some anticommunists who chanted hostile slogans at a ceremony welcoming him to the White House were arrested by American police. This indicated that absolute freedom was not tolerated even in the United States. But these slogan-chanters might not be arrested elsewhere even if they shouted anticommunist and anti-China slogans. Facts show that freedom of speech is restricted everywhere. Our system must give people maximum democracy and maximum freedom. But they cannot demand absolute freedom. 

Some people have said: "The main purpose of the 1976 revolutionary movement at Tiananmen Square has already been achieved." They seemed to tell people: Your "Democracy Movement" can now be concluded! We say it cannot be concluded because, up to now, socialist democracy and the legal system in China are still far from perfect. People must have certain democratic rights and it is only natural that people should exercise these rights fully. Until then, how can the movement be concluded?

Q: Some Western newspapers reported that the Chinese youths have demanded Western-style freedom and political systems. Do you care to comment on that? 

A: This judgment came from some Western correspondents and scholars who did not know much about China. I want to say that foreign experts on China are as rare as the Chinese experts on foreign affairs. Because they could not correctly nderstand China, their judgment on this matter was far from accurate. 

A human rights organization appeared in China during the Democracy Movement [probably a reference to Ren Wanding's "China Human Rights League"]. Foreign correspondents who noted this organization assumed that it was similar to its counterparts in the United States and the Soviet Union. Actually, this assumption was wrong. Some of our leaders who failed to study its nature made the same misjudgment. There are great differences between that organization and its foreign counterparts. For example, the leaders of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union are well-educated intellectuals and enjoy high popularity with the people in society, while the leaders of the Chinese human rights organization are ordinary workers and people from the grass-roots level units whose knowledge on the theory and concept of human rights is very limited.

The "human rights" slogan was a product of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Our young generation is not familiar with the theory of human rights and has mistaken citizens' rights for human rights, I personally disagree with suggestions from the Chinese human rights organization, which are incompatible with our national aspirations. The ruling classes in every society always want to protect their interests, and decide what freedoms can and cannot be tolerated. 

Q: Can you elaborate on the suggestions disagreeable to you? 

A: For example, it demanded that China open its borders. This is unrealistic. It is impossible for China to open its borders. In the north, there is a heavy concentration of Soviet troops along the China-USSR border. There is the Kuomintang regime hostile to us across the Taiwan Strait. For this reason, it is impossible for China to open its borders. The members of that human rights organization also blindly demanded inalienable human rights and opposed birth control. This was wrong. Our population has grown to one billion and has created a heavy burden on our economy as a result of our failure to observe birth control. Any opposition to birth control and family planning, and any failure to curb the population growth are neither in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people nor compatible with our national aspirations. These human rights slogans were a gross disregard of the Chinese people's aspirations and wishes. 

Some of our leaders who devoted no time to studying its nature also failed to draw a distinction between the Chinese human rights movement and its counterparts in other parts of the world, especially in the Soviet Union. President Carter has shown himself a skilled player of the human rights card since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the PRC and the United States. We hope that those naive youngsters will refrain from talking about this subject which may place our country in an awkward diplomatic position. Only by doing so can we maintain our national dignity. During the more than ten years of the Great Cultural Revolution, our citizen's rights were trampled under foot. For this reason, one cannot say that those young people's demand for human rights was entirely unreasonable. Problems do exist. The truth is that the subject of human rights is also a topic in the Marxist works. In a progressive society, the basic human rights should be preserved and safeguarded. It can be said that the problems arose from the inappropriate presentation of the human rights movement by some immature youths and from leaders' failure to study and achieve a clear understanding of it. 

Those who launched the human rights movement are not a force to reckon with, nor could they represent the mainstream of the democratic movement. [Xu's distinction between the Democracy Movement and the human rights movement was presumably promted by certain demands by self-styled  human rights advocates. However, most of the unofficial essays written at that time advovated both human rights and Democracy which they considered closele related.] The main force of the democratic movement are the private newspapers and civilian organizations. Foreign correspondents who did not understand the situation in China well, have concentrated their attention on the human rights movement launched by immature kids rather than on private newspapers and civilian organizations which represent the mainstream of the Democracy Movement. They have actually committed a mistake. 

Q: Should the members of the human rights movement enjoy freedom of speech? 

A: As far as the ideological and exploratory subjects are concerned, they should enjoy freedom of speech. Although they are deprived of rights to think. Incorrect ideas cannot be suppressed by coercion but can be converted into correct ones through debate. It is wrong to treat as enemies those who harbor incorrect ideas. But some of them have committed crimes and violated laws. If they have committed crimes, broken laws and maintained illicit relations with foreign countries, they should be treated as criminals. As long as they do not violate laws, they should be given rights to express their thoughts. I do not understand why a country dominated by the correct Marxist ideology is so fearful of incorrect ideas. 

Some people in foreign countries have speculated that the youths in China are longing for the Western way of life. This speculation is not correct. It may stem from foreign correspondents' misunderstanding of the situation in China. At least I can say that the overwhelming majority of Chinese youths do not want to turn the public ownership of the means of production into private ownership again, and they oppose the return of landlords and capitalists to Chinese society. Nor do they want our officials to become landlords, capitalists and privileged bureaucrats. After knowing this truth, one may have a clearer understanding of the democratic movement in China. 

The essence of the democratic movement in China is a call for putting the Marxist truth into practice in China. Therefore, its general orientation is correct. True, some youths have begun to envy the Western way of life after noticing that Westerners enjoy higher material standards of living and greater cultural freedom. But their knowledge of the Western way of life is very limited. They even did not know that the United States has devoted over two centuries to developing itself into a modern country, while China still has long way to go in modernizing itself. Frankly, one cannot say that everything is good in the West. Some Chinese youths, especially those nearing the age of twenty, know almost nothing about Western societies because they grew up when Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four" were in power, and therefore saw only the dark side of society. But others over thirty just like us, are not so sad as they are, because we saw many good things during the early days of the PRC's founding. Those youths who long for the Western way of life cannot represent the mainstream of the youth movement in China. 

While learning from other countries, we must exercise prudence. I think that everyone will agree that we must learn from the West in raising our cultural levels and material living standards. But we cannot accept their bad habits. Therefore, in our search for good things, we must distinguish good from bad. Everything has its positive and negative sides. I advise those youths who are longing for the Western way of life to analyze it first before they can identify the positive side of it. Does anyone disagree that we of the proletariat are also determined to build a society in which the people can enjoy high cultural and material living standards? Whether or not we wear bell-bottom trousers is none of our leaders 9 business. 

Some of our leaders are so incompetent in leading the nation in achieving the goal of better material well-being that they have tried everything possible to prevent the people from yearning for a better life. But it is the people's insatiable demands for a better life that have propelled society forward. Contentment with the status quo cannot achieve this purpose. Chinese society cannot make progress if everyone in it is satisfied with coarse bread, pickled and wild vegetables as their daily staple, just as the Chinese people in the ancient times did. The people's insatiable demands for a better life, both culturally and materially, can serve as a force to push society forward. If the people in primitive society were satisfied with wearing leaves, how could the textiles be invented? This being the case, would the people still have had to cover their bodies with leaves today? True, the people's demands can never be satisfied. For example, when they got clothes to wear, they would not be satisfied with the plain cotton dresses. They would keep on looking for colorful and better quality materials for making new dresses. 

Without such rising expectations, society cannot move forward. Our individual leaders' incompetence in leading the nation to improve its living standards has created a situation in which the people's demands have been suppressed. The Westerners love wearing bell-bottom trousers. This is their taste. Our leaders should adopt a non-committal attitude toward this matter because this is none of their business. If anyone wants to wear them, he should not be interfered with. Those high-quality bell-bottom trousers are so expensive that few workers could afford them. If they cannot resist the temptation to buy, they may demand a pay hike. This is the reason why our leaders want to ban bell-bottom trousers from our markets. 

However, a progressive society must always move to meet the people's demands for a higher form of material and spiritual life. For example, the people demand constant renewal of fashion in dresses. In the past, the Chinese people wore long gowns and mandarin jackets. Now they wear Sun Yat-sen dresses. This reflects progress in Chinese society. In the past, old-fashioned people were always criticized for being too conservative. I don't know why we should become so conservative now. We should help our youths make progress. But while doing so, we must keep an eye on them and prevent them from developing bad habits. The demand for a higher form of material life is justified. But it should fall in line with China's actual conditions. Generally speaking, many demands cannot be met because China's economy still cannot afford them. Many bad life-styles are not tolerated here. For example, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people do not approve of young Chinese girls living together with foreigners. They are simply not accustomed to such a lifestyle. This is the reason why our youths are urged to study and analyze the Western way of life before drawing any conclusions about it. As far as I know, many practices considered normal in the West are not tolerated by the conservative Chinese people. 

Q: What are official and readers' reactions to your newspaper? 

A: Since its inauguration, our newspaper has received neither support nor objections from our high-ranking leaders. Although we have submitted a report and application for registration in the hope of obtaining approval, we have received no response. After our issue no. 5 was sold, we had demanded to pay taxes; this demand remains unanswered. The reason may stem from a lack of a publication law. So far, we have received neither official rejection nor official approval. 

Our issue no. 8 carried a report on a visit to us by a few policemen. They inspected our office in a restrained manner. But their inquiry for information on names and employers of our staff then present seemed beyond their authority. It seems to me that police have no right to ask for names, addresses of my guests and their working units. During their visit, we were also asked to open that small room. It seemed to me that they were suspicious of something unusual in there. As a matter of fact, we had nothing to hide from them. We are open-minded. We hope that this unauthorized visit came from low-level police initiative rather than from directives issued by the high-ranking party and state leaders. 

Of course, since the inauguration of our newspaper, we have been bothered by some rumors or speculations. But I believe that this was caused by low-level personnel who were unfamiliar with the related policy and the current situation rather than by actions authorized by the high-ranking party and state leaders. This is the basic official attitude with which we have been treated. I do not understand why a Marxist country is so fearful of incorrect ideas. 

Q: What are readers' reactions? 

A: The overwhelming majority of them supported this newspaper. They felt that the Chinese society needs privately owned newspapers. Most of them have praised and even flattered our works. For example, they called "April 5th Forum" a "disseminator of Marxism and Chinese gospel." Actually, it does not deserve such praise. Our task is to systematically sum up and publish what has come to our attention and what the masses want us to say. We have done nothing special. Generally speaking, readers have highly praised and endorsed what we have done. Their praise and endorsement will encourage and spur us to move forward. 

Some people loved reading our newspaper but were unwilling to buy it. Others were willing to buy it but unwilling to subscribe to it for fear of getting into trouble. It is possible that this lingering fear was caused by Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four" who adopted a high-handed policy to suppress people's thoughts. Some comrades have also disagreed with what we have published. We consider this a normal reaction. Letting a hundred flowers blossoms and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy of "April 5th Forum", which is open to different views and which is unwilling to allow it to be dominated by a single school of thought: This is why a spectrum of opinions has appeared in our newspaper. The democratic movement also means running a newspaper in a democratic way and tolerating different opinions. Some dissension arose from readers' misunderstanding and misinterpretation of some of our articles. For example, some young comrades had expressed their disapproval of an article entitled "Is the United States a Democratic Paradise?" [In the journal "Qimeng" (Enlightenment). The article caused a widespread debate.] 

Q: What is its content?

A: One critic asked: "if the United States is not a democratic paradise, did you mean that China is a democratic paradise?" Actually, this is not the point of that article. As far as our country's democratic system is concerned, it remains far from perfect. But no one can say that everything American is perfect. As a matter of fact, the American democracy is fraught with hypocrisy and prejudice, and is also far from perfect. What the writer of that article really tried to say was that the American-style democracy is not what the Chinese people really need, and they cannot regard it as a model to be copied by China. Unfortunately, readers of it did not grasp its meaning well. But this does not matter. Wc feel that it is good to hear different views. More different opinions will appear in our future issues so that readers can judge for themselves what opinions are correct. These are main points contained in letters we have received from readers.

We have also received one or two letters accusing us of staging a rival show in competition with the party and trying to topple it. Yes, we have been putting on a- rival show in line with the law of the unity of opposites. How could we deny that? But the allegation that we are trying to topple the party is absolutely not true. In answering letters like that, wc had to be more polite and more patient in order to clearly convey our thoughts to their senders. Sometimes we even coupled our answers with the compliment of our publications to enable them to understand us better. But so far, we haven't heard from these critics again. We hope that they can understand us. These are basic reactions from the readers.  

Q: Do you have any plans for the future and any hopes?

A: We are determined to carry on the publication of "April 5th Forum". This is our hope and readers' too. We have devoted only our spare-time to running this newspaper. It is not. easy to run a paper under extremely difficult financial conditions. But we are aware that running this newspaper is in response to a historical call. We have to carry it on. While doing so, we must pay attention to the external and internal conditions. Favorable external conditions means positive answers to the following questions: Does our society approve it? Do our party and state leaders approve it? By now, we have received no indications of their disapproval. If they had disapproved it, we would have been out of business long ago. We feel that we are too weak to be able to withstand any blows. Frankly, if the external strong pressures force us to close down, we don't think that we can resist it. So far, we can foresee no such possibility. One may interpret it as a tacit approval of our newspaper.

Favorable internal conditions means our ability to maintain and improve the quality of our newspaper. To this end, we must continue to study and improve our professional skills. Only by doing so can we maintain its equality. If the quality deteriorates, no one would be interested in reading or buying our newspaper. This being the case, it would die a natural death. This is what those leaders who do not approve it would be happy to see happen; We would be out of business immediately if we let the quality drop, if we fail to speak for the people. Ours is a business which must be responsible for its own profits and losses. We have no external financial resources. If the people lost interest in it, the newspaper would be out of existence. To prevent it from dying a natural death, we must concentrate our efforts on improving the quality, on studying and analyzing problems. We must also keep in close touch with the masses, and respond to their desires and needs. We are optimistic over our future. Our newspaper is an inevitable product of the world current and a reflection of progress in China. Our operating conditions are very difficult. Basically, we print by hand.

Democracy is not a monopoly of China but a worldwide movement. The world has progressed where the people's demand for making themselves real masters of their own countries — no matter whether they are socialist or capitalist — have become so strong that it can no longer be suppressed. Just as America's Brzezinski [Zbigniew Brzezinski, US President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor] stated: "Humanity has developed to a point where no one can use his ideas to conquer another man. It is even not easy to use such ideas to persuade him into agreement."

Man is now capable of thinking independently as a result of the rapid development of the material wealth and culture. Democracy is a trend which knows no boundary in the world. As long as China moves forward, it will make a contribution to the world democratic movement. The current national trend in China also indicates that unlike Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four," our present leaders are well aware of, and would be responsive to, the people's aspirations and demands. China must rely on the intellectuals to realize its Four Modernizations, intellectuals who instinctively favor democracy. Improved education has also led the broad masses of workers and peasants to demand that they be made real masters of their own country. The situation now developing at home and abroad seemingly bodes well for the democratic movement. I believe that as a mouthpiece and spokesman of the democratic movement, our newspaper can continue in operation and will have a bright future. In the future, we will concentrate on studying problems. Only by studying hard can we improve the quality of our newspaper and develop it into an educational publication which will help the ordinary workers and people enrich their knowledge.  

Q: What equipment has your newspaper? How and where is it printed?

A: We are operating under very difficult conditions. Our office looks shabby, printing equipment and methods are simple and primitive. Basically, we print by hand.

Q: How do you print it?

A: As far as its contents are concerned, we have tried our best to make it competitive with other modem newspapers. But our printing method is very primitive. We cut stencils first, and then have them mimeographed by hand. We devote only our spare -time and nights to printing the newspaper.

Q: Where have the funds come from? 

A: At the beginning, funds were donated by workers associated with the newspaper whose monthly salaries range from 40 to 50 yuan. Each of us was requested to donate 1 yuan or 1 percent of his monthly salary to the fund. Beginning from the issue no. 5, it has been sold at a price that all the low-income Chinese people can afford. Because we are responsible for our own profits and losses, we cannot sell it at too low a price so that we can make both ends meet.  

We have two offices: The editorial department and the liaison office located at 76, Lane 14, Dongsi. But the Hong Kong journal "Contend" once mistook our mail-handling liaison office for our editorial department, which is located at my two-room home here. I have used one sixteen square meter room as our editorial department. It is where all articles are edited, stencils are cut, copies are printed and stapled. Our working conditions are poor and working schedule is very tight.

Since we all have regular daytime jobs, we can only spend nights running our newspaper. To meet the deadline, sometimes we can sleep only one to four hours a day. We often have to work until 11:00 to 12:00 p.m. or even 1:00 to 2:00 a.m. Our newspaper is a monthly publication. As soon as an issue is off the press, we have a few-days break before preparing for the next issue. Although many more people have expressed their desire to join us, we had to turn them down because our room is too small for so many people. So far, we have had no trouble buying newsprint paper, ink and stencils rom the local market, although they were sometimes in short supply. In short, no one has deliberately refused to deal with us.