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Marie Holzman

Marie Holzman (2009)

... is a French sinologist, journalist and writer. Between 1972 and 1980, she studied in Taiwan, Japan and China. When the "Beijing Spring" movement started in late 1978, she was just studying at Peking University. Marie Holzman quickly became friends with Chinese civil rights and democracy activists like Wei Jingsheng, Xu Wenli or Ren Wanding, and she followed closely the developments at the Xidan Democracy Wall - also reporting for French and international media. She was married then to the sinologist Emmanuel Bellefroid, who held a diplomatic post at the French embassy in Beijing, but they divorced when she returned to France in 1980.

Marie Holzman then published more than 300 articles on Wei Jingsheng who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 1979. In 2005, after Wei being released and exiled to the United States, she published (together with Bernard Debord) a lengthy biography ("Wei Jingsheng, un chinois inflexible", éditions Bleu de Chine) of the Chinese dissident.

From 1984 to 2002, Marie Holzman was a professor for Chinese studies at the "Paris VII" University. In 1989 she founded (and became chairwomen of) the "Association Solidarité Chine", an NGO supporting political activists who had been forced to leave China after the clampdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement that year. In 2009, just before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Movement, Marie Holzman was awarded the destinction of the "Legion d'Honneur", the highest French order for military and civil merits.



Interview with Marie Holzman (on April 24, 2014 in her home in Paris]

Interviewer (Helmut Opletal): I'd like to start by asking you, how did you experience at that time - 1978, 1979, 1980 - the Democracy Movement in China? How did you get in touch with these people? If I understand correctly, you were in China from 1975 to 1980. What was the moment when you noticed that there was something going on that was different from the political movements we had seen before in China? 

Marie Holzman: I arrived in Beijing in September 1975, I studied at the Beijing Yuyan Xueyan [北京语言学院, Beijing Language Institute, now Language and Culture University], and I happened to be at Beijing Daxue [北京大学, Peking University] in September 1976 when Mao Zedong died. So I was a witness of this huge shock. I was also in Beijing when Zhou Enlai died, so I saw when this great giant collapsed. I noticed the reactions of the people, and I was of course very impressed. It was a huge outpouring of grief, some of it sincere, some of it fake, some of it organized, some of it somehow turned into a show. But I was observant enough to understand the differences between true tears and people putting on a show for their being "sad".

I was just a simple observer all that time. When I arrived in Beijing, I could already fluently speak Chinese because I had lived in Taiwan before, so I lost no time making friends and "feeling" the people, and strangely enough, even though I arrived in Beijing as a sort of anti-communist, I had never been a Maoist or a Communist or Marxist-Leninist, that wasn’t my cup of tea, but still I was impressed by the Chinese society I saw. I am not going to say that I felt it was good or ideal, but I was sort of numbed, I became vaguely passive, thinking, well, the Chinese live that way, it's their system, so what can we say about it except noticing what was going on?

So when [the demonstration on Tiananmen Square in] April 1976 happened, it were the first outburst and the first repression. It was squashed by the police, there were no dead as far as we know, but still it was pretty violent and brutal. So when that April Fifth incident happened, we were all very aware that something was going on that was not according to Chinese propaganda, and that some Chinese had, as they said, different thoughts.

Interviewer: At that point, in April 1976, did you have Chinese friends yet who would talk openly about what was happening, about their ideas? 

Holzman: Yes, that's the interesting side of my story: I've always been rather open and talkative. I would say, the only "friend" I had at the Beijing Language Institute was a simple-minded person. He was the sweeper who cleaned that area, and he had a strong Sichuan accent. He was really simple-minded, but not crazy, but something was missing. And he was very lonely, and he noticed that I was sort of roaming around, and we started talking. He told me about his life, he said that his wife had divorced him, that he had a son. Sometimes the son was there, so we happened to go to the park together, play with the son on Sundays. So he was a sort of real friend. 

After the April Fifth incident, he showed me some of the poems that had been gathered by the police as "counter-revolutionary material". And that was a big thing, because nobody [of the foreigners] knew about that, and nobody knew that there were meetings telling everybody that this event was "bad", that it was banned etc. Of course, as he was so weird, I didn’t know how much to believe, but still I had a direct witness who talked to me completely sincerely without pretending anything. He just told me, they had this long meeting which lasted three hours, and they had to listen and take notes. He showed me copies of the poems, it was quite amusing. But this friendship did not last very long, because as we went walking here and there, the police found out about this, and they came and told me. But I said, what are you doing, you cannot prevent me from talking to my friend, and so on. But they said, no, no, no, it is for your own safety, and they were suggesting "you know perfectly well that he was not normal, and it might be dangerous for you to be alone with him." He was definitely not "normal", but he was definitely not dangerous. I am telling you all that because that is really the only real friend I had, because no one else would have dared to talk to a Westerner who understood. That was the problem, they knew I understood. They didn’t like me because of that, because they felt they couldn’t trick me. 

And then my other friend was a Hui, a member of the Chinese Muslim community in Beijing, she was sort of absolutely "normal". She was a waitress at the restaurant. She was rather handsome, very tall, and very lively. And so we also talked and went to the park. But one day she was asked by the police: "What do you do with her? Why do you visit her?" And then she told me like that, "they said we had met thirteen times." I didn’t have the feeling that it was that many, but I am sure they were right. I remember we went to the parks around Tiananmen. What do you do there? You have tea, you walk around, you admire the flowers, and you talk. But they had followed every step! They knew how many times we had met, how many times we had eaten together. 

And of course - I am saying "of course", although it is not very nice - she was a little interested, because her mother was sick, and she had problems getting medicine. And I had a chance once or twice to go to Hong Kong where I bought some medicine for her and brought it back. So of course she was very thankful and very happy to know someone who could get her the medicine for her mother. And I was moved by that story, of course it was very moving. That's the kind of friends I had, so no one really capable of bringing up an analysis or criticism… 

Interviewer: When did this change? 

Holzman: The change was in 1978, only in 1978. Because in 1976, we were witnesses of the events, we saw the crowds on Tiananmen Square, but we couldn’t really approach the people. We could approach them, but they wouldn’t talk to us, they knew it was too dangerous. But in summer 1978, something very weird happened. There were these paintings and poems by a group from Guizhou, the Guizhou Qimeng Yundong [启蒙运动, Enlightenment Movement]. and what they were saying was like "Chinese people, get up, fight for your freedom, …" It was very strong and very unexpected, so of course I noticed it. At that time I was not a student any more, I was working for AFP [French Press Agency], so I was with [AFP bureau chief] Georges Biannic, helping him gathering information. That's why as a professional I was very aware and reactive, when something was happening, I went, I looked and I read and brought back some news. So from 1978/79 I was writing a number of articles which I later used in my book  "Avec les Chinois; Paris (Flammarion) 1981" [With the Chinese]. Because of that I was very active, I went to the Democracy Wall every day. 

Interviewer: So in 1978, the first were the people of the "Enlightenment" group… 

Holzman: Yes, and second was the coming out of the people arrested in 1976 [after the Tiananmen incident]. Some of them had been in jail, but they were rehabilitated, as they say, in October or November 1978. And that made people like Wang Juntao become active. I know that he had started being active because of Lin Xiling [林希翎, 1935–2009, a Chinese activist and dissident]. Lin Xiling told me that she had gone to see him. She herself had just come out of jail after 15 years. 

Interviewer: She is the one who was victim of the "Hundred Flowers" movement? 

Holzman: Exactly, and she told me that she had gone to see him and she had warned him to be prudent and not go too far and be careful. But you stick to your believes, and Wang Juntao was already trying to push democratic reforms. But that I didn’t know at that time. I only learned later that Wang Juntao was among those who were starting to think about the Democracy Movement. He was in the [Communist] Youth League, he was a follower of Hu Yaobang, and Lin Xiling had been a friend of Hu Yaobang, a sort of fiancée of Hu Yaobang's secretary, and so she was close to all those Qing Tuan [青团, Youth League] people. 

That time was very exciting, but it started strangely. There were a few dazibao that were posted at the Xidan minzhuqiang [Democracy Wall], one of them was posted by Xia Xunjian [夏训健, a Peking University student who published the independent journal "Reference News for the Masses" [Qunzhong Cankao Xiaoxi 群众参考消息], and Xia Xunjian was another one, I also think, slightly deranged. It's very interesting that only people who were not completely "normal" came up at that time. And Xia Xunjian did something very original, he wrote the "Xiao Cankao Xiaoxi" ["small Reference News"], as they called his private publication, in contrast to official "Da Cankao Xiaoxi" [大参考消息, "big Reference News"], an internal news publication for party members and cadres. But he did a publication with news for the "democrats", although they did not use that word yet. But it was "real news for real people", and he wrote quite a lot. He also called for more freedom, more movement, and he posted all that on the wall of Xidan. 

What was strange, was that he left his real name and his address. He had a room at Beida [Peking University], from where he did his activities. He possessed a mimeograph, a very primitive printing machine which was in his room at Beida, and since he had given his address on a dazibao, I thought, well, I go. You know, at that time we did not have any portable telephones, actually there were no telephones at all. And that is how I got in touch with everybody. 

I really went on my own. One afternoon, I just decided I had find that place. I was walking at Beida, a place which I knew very well, since I had studied there for one year, when I noticed that somebody was following me. He was wearing a grey coat, and I felt a little unsecure about what was he doing. We were both going in the same direction, but to make it short, it was Ren Wanding. He was doing the same thing as me! He had found Xia Xunjian's address, and he thought, well, I am going to see who it is. We met there, that's how it started, I met Xia Xunjian and Ren Wanding at the same time. From then on, I knew them all: Xu Wenli, Wei Jingsheng, It started from there. 

Interviewer: That was when? 

Holzman: Maybe in October 1978 [more likely in November], Wei Jingsheng I met only in December. At that time, Wei Jingsheng was still observing everything, he was watching, but didn’t do anything himself until December 1978. His first article came out on December 8 , I think [it was Dec. 5, on "the Fifth Modernization"]. 

Interviewer: The Third Plenum of the Central Committee only took place at the end of November, so things started moving already a bit before that official signal? 

Holzman: Yes, but the big exchange of ideas and all that came at the of November or in December. That's when the [Democracy] Movement really started, when everybody came posting dazibao and all that, when Wei Jingsheng started, and that exploded. Everybody suddenly had the idea that China should or could become democratic. 

I was very enthusiastic about Wei Jingsheng's article, I translated it into French, it was published in the New York Times, it was a big thing, that article "The Fifth Modernization". Then the other journalists, from Reuters, the Canadians, Nigel Wade [Daily Telegraph correspondent], [Roger] Garside [a sinologist and British diplomat], [Ian] MacKenzie [Reuters bureau chief in Beijing] gathered around and wanted to meet Wei Jingsheng. And I would usually go with him, because Wei Jingsheng didn’t speak English at that time, and very few journalists spoke Chinese. 

The reactions of the journalists were rather strange, because Wei Jingsheng was pushing for his magazine "Tansuo" [Explorations] that he had created, and he was saying to all the journalists: "You have to sucribe!" But you know, to the Chinese the journal was selling at yi mao qian or liang mao qian [0,10 or 0,20 yuan] a copy, but to the foreign press he wanted to sell it for 20 yuan. 20 yuan, I don’t say it was nothing, but to us it was not much [about 13 US dollars at the time]. For some journalists this was all right, but some said, you sell it for 0,20 at the Democracy Wall, why do you want to sell it for 20 yuan to us, what commercial attitude is this, etc… 

Wei Jingsheng was quite direct about this. He said, if we want to publish, we need paper, ink etc., we have nothing. It was interesting how some foreign journalists were insensitive to what was going on. Because the fact that Wei Jingsheng had created "Tansuo" [Explorations],was a true miracle, and he risked his life. At that time, people were still shot for political reasons, and what he was writing in his magazine, was really very brave, and at the same time when there was this movement, there was a big demonstration in the Beijing streets, at the beginning of January, I think [it was on Jan. 8, 1979] with Fu Yuehua [傅月华]. She was the leader of the "Army of the Starving", the leader of all these shangfangzhe [上访者, "petitioners"] who were sort of dying of cold near the Ministry of Justice [actually the "Ministry of Public Security" at the time, the "Ministry of Justice" was only reestablished in Sept. 1979]. She was a very remarkable woman. 

I never met her, I never saw her, but I knew of that demonstration, because the were pictures taken, there was written about it. For some reason I was not there, it must have been at very short notice, and I couldn’t be on the streets all the time. It was a very, very cold winter, we were at minus twenty almost every night. I could understand when she was saying "We are the Army of the Poor and the starving and the dying," it was probably true. And she got arrested, And Wei Jingsheng went with a little tape recorder that I had given him, that tape recorder was very precious and very useful, because at that time no Chinese had little tape recorders, that was impossible, and he went to the paichusuo [派出所, police station] where Fu Yuehua had been arrested, asking about Fu Yuehua. 

What he was doing, I could feel immediately that he was a hero! Nobody dared to do anything like that at the time. It was [??], people were arrested for nothing, people were shot for nothing, still at that time. You remember the Zhang Zhixin incident [张志新, a dissident executed in 1975 for having criticized the Mao idolization], she was shot and they cut her tongue and vocal cords so she couldn’t scream. That was still that time. 

So, I was very excited by all that was going on, I wanted to bring as much support as I could, without doing too much of course, because if you did too much, that was even worse for them. And I couldn’t understand that other journalists wouldn’t react like me. Now I understand a little better that a journalist should not be an actor, but just an observer. But still many did not understand what was going on, because it was in a way a true political, psychological, human miracle. All of a sudden you had Ren Wanding, Wei Jingsheng, Xu Wenli, Liu Qing, all these men who were not crazy, they were "normal", they were intelligent and they were thinking about China's future. What was interesting was that each of them had his own thoughts, so there was kind of political pluralism. And it wasn’t like "We all want to do like America" or like Europe or whatever. Actually they didn’t really know what was going on in America and Europe. In many ways they were very badly informed. They knew it was "Western" and "democratic", but… 

Interviewer: They knew a bit more about dissidents in Eastern Europe… 

Holzman: A little bit, they knew about Solzhenitsyn [the Soviet author of "The Gulag Archipelago"], and Xu Wenli knew about [Polish union leader Lech] Wałęsa, but their intellectual references were still Victor Hugo, they were always talking about Victor Hugo, which is not a bad reference for democracy of course. Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, they were not very modern, but yet they had ex nihilo created a new political world in China. To me that was a revelation, because I was always convinced about universal human rights. I have always thought that there was something like universal values, but I had not found that in China. So I was hesitant, where are the universal values? And then, all of a sudden, it came out. 

And I say, it was a sort of historical human miracle that so many people should come out so courageous and with a political mind so well set. This is why in many ways I was very disappointed by the 1989 movement. I have looked for texts, ideas, in the '89 movement, but I didn’t find any. Yes, they were fighting against nepotisms, against corruption, but I am sure you cannot quote a single beautiful text that came out of the 1989 movement, whereas we all remember Wei Jingsheng's "Fifth Modernization", Ren Wanding and his "Human Rights Constitution", or Xu Wenli who is asking for independence for trade unions. That was intelligent, because it were different approaches to how China could evolve, they were true constructive proposals. Whereas in 1989 it was very disorganized, it was not well-thought, and it was sort of vaguely inspired by [Soviet reformer Mikhail] Gorbachev, by [the Polish independent trade union] "Solidarność", but not - I would say - bendi [本地, local], it was not purely Chinese, not "what we Chinese want", and how we want it. 

The Xu Wenli, Wei Jingsheng, Ren Wanding people had gone through the Cultural Revolution, that has been very well explained by Francis Deron [French sinologist and journalist, 1953-2009], Simon Leys [real name Pierre Ryckmans, Belgian-Australian sinologist, 1935-2014] and various observers, and they analyzed it, saying these people knew exactly what Chinese reality was, because they saw how desperate and poor the Chinese were, and the difference with propaganda. So nobody could fool them, they knew exactly what propaganda was: fake news, fake information, and real despair, real poorness, they were deprived of freedom, deprived of everything. 

So the political thinking of these people came from there, whereas the 1989 people came from a relatively free atmosphere, and they were relatively rich. During my time nobody had a washing machine or a refrigerator, while during 1989 everybody in Beijing had a washing machine and a refrigerator. And this made a huge difference.  If you had no refrigerator, you spent three hours a day shopping, cooking, baking etc., you had to do it every day, every day. Hu Ping has explained very well that in 1989 people were sort of liberated from this queuing, having to buy baicai [cabbage], rou [meat], jidan [eggs]. They had more time, more freedom, they were more capable of enjoying life. In 1979 there was practically nothing to enjoy, really, no restaurants, no coffee shops, no cookies, nothing. Of course we still had a good time together, but not a materially good time, it was really hard. Therefore I was tremendously impressed by their courage, and the dimensions that these men could produce from nothing or what looked like nothing. And then, of course, they all disappeared one by one, when they all got arrested, one this week, one the other week, and when they all got sentenced to ten years, fifteen years, twelve years… 

Interviewer: Wasn’t that later, in 1981? 

Holzman: No, not much later. Xu Wenli was in 1981. Wei Jingsheng was sentenced on October 15, 1979, I remember that very well. And Liu Qing started writing against Wei Jingsheng's sentence, then he got arrested as well and sentenced to ten years in 1980. Ren Wanding was arrested one week after Wei Jingsheng in April 1979, and then he was sentenced a few months after Wei Jingsheng. 

Xu Wenli, it looks bizarre, they let him free until the end of 1980, beginning of 1981, because they wanted to observe who was still in touch with him, to make sure that they had caught everybody. Then they put him in jail [on April 9, 1981], and that was the end. Sun Weibang, who is here in France now, was active in Qingdao. He got arrested too, because he had visited Xu Wenli after the arrest of Wei Jingsheng. They had gone on with the movement, and because of that, they were accused of forming a political group or whatever. They had Qin Yongmin [秦永敏] in Xi'an, and others in Nanjing and Chengdu, so they were in touch with each other. That’s why they waited to arrest Xu Wenli, they wanted to make sure that they knew everybody who was "somebody".

It was a very exceptional time, and I consider it the most interesting time after 1949 for intellectual intuitions. Those were only intuitions that never reappeared. Now it's different, now China is modern, you have people like Liu Xiaobo etc. who have been abroad, seen things, brought back ideas. It's completely different now, China is open, it is part of the world. But at that time it wasn’t. 

Interviewer: I want to ask you a few things at this point: To which extent - you have already mentioned a few things on the relationship between journalist and dissidents - was the movement at that time influenced by foreigners in China? 

Holzman: Not at all! 

Interviewer: And to which extent was it - maybe not at the beginning, but later - supported in one way or the other? We know they gave them… 

Holzman: 20 Yuan now and then… 

Interviewer: … that does not count for the amount, but maybe for them it counted for the feeling that somebody was [behind them]. But how do you see this? Because you are also mentioned that you have given them a tape recorder that was later used to record the trial of Wei Jingsheng. And we know how this tape recorder was brought into the courtroom by Qu Leilei. But if you look at the whole picture, what do you think, about the role that these contacts and the foreign media played? 

Holzman: Well, there was a role. The role was what the Chinese called "export for import". The information went to the "Voice of America" or BBC, and it came back to China through the foreign media. So whatever information they had in China about the movement came from that. Of course there was no information in the Chinese media. So that was very important, and it definitely played a role. It gave them a sense of their historical importance. 

They had it when they started doing things, but if nobody had reported about them, if the information had not come out to come in again, then it would have fallen flat rather fast, I think, because this sort of movement needed a kind of fuel. In that sense the foreign press did play the role of "fuel", because it informed other Chinese who learned from that, and then gathered around as they were curious: Who's that? What's going on? I heard that on VOA, on BBC, and that had an impact. 

Interviewer: Did VOA and BBC really play such an important role? I mean, did so many people listen to these programs? 

Holzman: Yes, yes. 

Interviewer: But it was not like "Radio Free Europe" [a US-sponsored radio broadcasting to communist countries in Europe], to which practically everybody listened then? 

Holzman: No, no, in China it was dangerous to listen to those radios, but they played a very important role already then. I remember for example, that I learned about the trial of Wei Jingsheng that way. The news went out somehow, I don’t know if I heard it from VOA or BBC, but it came back to China, otherwise I wouldn’t have known which day he had been tried. So someone told somebody, and then we all knew, you see. That was very important. 

Interviewer: But not too many people listened, maybe some educated people… 

Holzman: In Beijing of course, it was different, because people were very, very political. It was really near the heart of decisions, so everybody was always talking about everything, exchanging information. At that time there were the "big families"  like Wei Jingsheng's. He came from a "big family", they were close to the top leaders, his father was a member of the elite. They all talked a lot, and many were in some ways supportive of the young. Not all of them were conservative revolutionaries, far from it. In that sense the media played a role. I don’t want to talk much about myself, but I didn’t really know anyone among the foreigners except myself who did get involved with the movement. 

Interviewer: Do you think the embassies played a role, for example the US and the French? 

Holzman: Afterwards possibly, at that time very little. The Americans were very present, the CIA was there, everybody knew that there were a lot of CIA people in their embassy in China. 

Interviewer: Did they try to make contact? Do you remember anything about that? 

Holzman: Wei Jingsheng, of course, did get invited by journalists, and he did enter the compounds of the foreign press, but embassy? Very little. That happened later, in 1989, during the 80s, but not in 1979. When I was there, the Italians were pretty active. I wasn’t too close to them, but I remember they had an ambassador who was very open, and he probably supported them, but not much… 

Interviewer: Another question is, were there any political links, even though it was a very Chinese movement. But were there any attempts to influence them, to use them, or give them money? 

Holzman: I really don’t think so. Also because at that time there were not so many people [among the foreigners] speaking Chinese. I remember, there were about twenty French students, that made 40 in two years, plus those from other countries. And only some of them could speak fluent Chinese, others not. Then there were the Albanians and Romanians, but they didn’t mingle with that kind of people at all. And there were the Africans, they were always talking about Africa and Palestine, they were not interested in China at all, just following their own businesses. So there were not that many people involved, or in the capacity of getting involved. At the French embassy there were only one or two who could speak Chinese. One was very fluent, but the ambassador could not speak Chinese, the first secretary could not speak Chinese… 

Interviewer: Emmanuel Bellefroid [Marie Holzman's husband then] was already there? Then he must have been the one who spoke good Chinese? 

Holzman: Yes, he spoke good Chinese, and he had some meetings with the activists, because he was in charge of the press. But it was often on a personal initiative, not for the embassy. I don’t think the embassy was pushing him that way, they were very careful not to tread on dangerous fields. That's my feeling, but you can ask Wei Jingsheng or Xu Wenli, maybe they tell you another story. 

Interviewer: I will, but still I am wondering. I am very surprised about the US… but maybe there are some things we don’t know. When you look back today, knowing that it is difficult to be objective when you are involved in something, but in your opinion, how important was this movement after all? 

Holzman: Well, this movement could have been fantastically important. I will not quote myself, but I will quote Bao Tong [鲍彤, Policy Secretary of Zhao Ziyang, deposed in 1989], you know, he spent all those years in jail, and when he came out seven or eight years after Tiananmen, I interviewed him on the phone. He said, our biggest mistake was not to reform China in a democratic way in 1979, saying "at that time I criticized Wei Jingsheng, and I thought he was a crazy young man." And he added: "Now I realize, he was right." So I don’t quote myself, but Bao Tong. In some way people like Bao Tong, and I think there are quite a few in the old generation, they think that Wei Jingsheng could have had an important political role in modern China, if things had been different, if there had not been a Deng Xiaoping, if there had not been a very strong Communist Party. 

I tell you another story: I met Zhao Ziyang in 1984. He was invited by the [French] government and officially welcomed. Still at that time there were very few people in France who could speak fluent Chinese, so I happened to be invited by our Prime Minister to join the ceremony with Zhao Ziyang. And those times it was much less formal than now, now you cannot approach anybody anywhere. But at that time we had a kind of garden party at the Matignon where the Prime Minister works. We were walking around, Zhao Ziyang was there, and I was just waiting until all the businessmen had stopped talking to him. Then I approached him and said, well, I heard about your reputation, it's really great what you have done for Sichuan [as Party Secretary of the province in the late 70s], and everybody says you are so wonderful. He sort of blushed. And then I said, well, what about Wei Jingsheg, are you going to let him out? 

His reaction was very interesting. I was standing there, and I saw in his eyes, he was thinking: Do I pretend, I don’t know who Wei Jingsheng was? And he decided, no. He said, Wei Jingsheng was sentenced by the government, by justice, and as he was sentenced, it doesn’t belong to me to set him free. But I was sort of rrrrrr… and I said, but he is young, he is a patriot, he is a good man, it is terrible to destroy a talented Chinese youth like that. And again he looked at me and smiled, and he said something amazing: "Wei Jingsheng is still young. When he comes out, he can still do something. Isn't it worse to be in jail when you are old? Because when you come out, you are finished." 

But that's what had happened to him! And he was predicting the future for Wei Jingsheng in 1984. t proves what I have always felt, that that movement was more important than any other.  And if something had happened then, of  course it was impossible, but if something had happened, Chinese modernization would have gone completely different. So it's a tremendous lost opportunity that I would compare to the [Chinese reform] movement of 1899 with all these wonderful intellectuals, that actually led to [the revolution of] 1911 and the founding of the Republic. Without them you would certainly not have had the Republic, but if Cixi [慈禧, the Empress Dowager and de facto regent of China until 1908] had been intelligent enough from her side to organize the reforms, we could have had a Chinese Great Britain, with an empress and constitutionalism. So it would have been possible, and it would have been great for China. But it didn’t happen. 

Interviewer: It sounds, and you also said it in some way, that the movement has failed after all? 

Holzman: It's more like the Titanic, it sunk, that is worse than "failed", it sunk and disappeared. 

Interviewer: Why did it fail? Why was it limited to a few people, to two years? 

Holzman: I would say, it has a lot to do - in Marxist terms - with economic, social, historical reasons. One is, no information. The people who were active in that movement, you can count [showing her fingers], maybe four times, fifty people maybe. What can you do? Fifty people for one billion Chinese. It was hopeless, so the movement could not spread, because the information was not there. 

I can give you a very good example. I was friends with Wei Shanshan, the sister of Wei Jingsheng. Wei Shanshan read Wei Jingsheng's writings only wehen she was here, on the bed up there in 1992 or 93. His sister! She knew that her brother was famous, she knew that he had written things. But she had never read what he wrote, until she read it here in the book published in Chinese and French by Emmanuel Bellefroid. So if even she did not know, and she wasn't stupid at that time, she was already a university student in fine arts. But if she didn’t know, how many people knew? Very few. 

They had it in their hearts though, because there were crowds around the minzhuqiang [Democracy Wall], real crowds, like sardines in the box, all looking and very close to one another. That's also how people put letters in my pockets. I would find letters in my pocket, when I went there, and I didn’t even feel it, because we were so crushed, and these people were all telling me, help us, help us, because we want freedom etc., so they had it in their hearts, but they did not have the tools. They had no way to spread the movement, that's one thing. And the fear, the fear was definitely most important, because from 1949 to 1979 the country was under totalitarianism, and in a totalitarian society, fear is number one. 

I think it was in 1982, I welcomed to my home [in France] a young Chinese girl who had fled. She had been here on some kind of mission, they were twenty or so Chinese, and she just left. Somebody called me at midnight and said, she had nowhere to go, can she stay with you? I said yes, and she stayed a year then. But it took her months before she was able to pronounce a few things like "when will the police come and check?" She thought that sooner or later the police would come to my house and ask why there was a Chinese staying with me. She was afraid of that, but she could not say it. So every day she left with the fear that police would come, but she did not dare to ask me. This gives you an idea of the fear, because of course I had talked a lot to her what she could do, what she could not do, how to do it etc., but still the fear was there, absolutely. 

Interviewer: But those people who were active, they didn’t… 

Holzman: They knew! No, they were ready to die for their ideas. Ren Wanding, Xu Wenli, Wei Jingsheng, they knew they could be shot, but they preferred the idea of dying rather than staying passive. That's why I think they are such heroes. 

Interviewer: What do you think about the personalities that carried this movement. I have the feeling they were limited in some way, which made them after all not being able to carry on and to enlarge this movement, to gain more followers. Holzman: What I would say, is that all these people had one common trait, they all came from rather privileged families. So at one point in their evolution or whatever they had access to interesting ideas. And most of them had tragedies in their families. Either their grandpa had been shot by the Guomindang [国民党, National Party] or by the Gongchandang [共产党, Communist Party], and they carried these scars of history that made them very aware of the drama of China's revolutions, maybe more than others. Most Chinese were aware, but sometimes not completely in a personal way. They had gone through all these tragedies without having suffered too much in their families. But all the Xidan minzhuqiang [Democracy Wall] people had very close experiences of what totalitarianism can do to families, to a human being, and they were all scared by that. I would say this is more important. And in some way they were all more able to think and have access to ideas. Wei Jingsheng for example read a lot when he was young. He read all that, Victor Hugo, all the stories, Turgenev, Tolstoy, everything he managed to put his hands on, he read. 

Interviewer: Do you have the feeling that a reason for failure was that there was not enough unity among the different groups? 

Holzman: Oh, there was no unity! There was a lot of infighting already, but the infighting was not yet as sour as it has become later. Now it's pestilential, it's terrible. 

Interviewer: You mean the dissidents in exile now? 

Holzman: Yes, yes… 

Interviewer: So what about the infighting or differences at that time? 

Holzman: In was a problem of strategy, and that is interesting, because it was political, not personal. It was not, I want to be the boss, and I don’t want to wait to be the boss. There was a bit of that, that's always normal. But it was a matter of strategy. Most other Chinese dissident were against Wei Jingsheng, because they thought, Wei Jingsheng was pushing too far, too fast, that he was too vocal. What they were asking for, was gradual reform, gradual this and that, influencing slowly, like Wang Juntao did. Wang Juntao is a good strategist, he is an intelligent man, and certainly, if there had not happened what happened in 1989, he could have been part of the political reforms to go on. Supposed there had not been Tiananmen, he could have done something. He was very careful not to go too far, not to say too much etc., so Wei Jingsheng and the others became enemies, because they saw that Wei Jingsheng was attacking Deng Xiaoping directly, saying Deng Xiaoping, you are going to be the next Mao Zedong, you are going to be the next dictator, you are going to do awful things. 

None of them wanted that, they did not want anybody to go that far and provoke the furor of the leader as Wei Jingsheng did. If you ask Wei Jingsheng now, he will explain that to you. He will say, if I had been milder, the result would have been the same. They would not have accepted any kind of opposition, mild or violent, explicit or not explicit. It was just no to reform, no to opposition, no to pluralism. So it didn’t matter whether I was some sort of extremist or not. That's his answer, I have heard him say it often. But many of the others still think that the failure of that movement was because of him. Therefore the infighting at that time was about content. That sort of infighting I respect, you are allowed to have different strategies and to fight for your ideas. That's why I say that it was an interesting movement. 

Interviewer: You mentioned before that there were more ideas than in 1989. Do you think that there was enough vision, enough utopia, that there were enough ideas in this movement, and that there were other reasons why it failed? Do you think this utopia went far enough, was it wide enough? Or was it also too limited? 

Holzman: I think the utopia was definitely wide enough, but their numbers were too limited. As I told you, if you have only fifty people for a billion Chinese, that is definitely not enough. And they did not have the time to spread. When you see how fast the 1989 movement grew, you can see that the basis was there, it definitely cannot have changed that much in ten years, right? Therefore intelligent people could come out, because the utopia was strong enough. Otherwise the fear was too big, and with good reasons. The mechanisms of this society were too tight. What could you do under these circumstances? It's like under Hitler, what could you do in 1940, supposed you wanted to fight against the Nazi regime? You were shot within a week, it was in some ways a very similar situation. 

And, that is very important, Deng Xiaoping brought too much hope. Deng Xiaoping's vision is also a very important aspect. All of a sudden the Chinese were being told, we have to modernize, we have to go back to work, go back to school, get back to education, we have rehabilitated the demonstrators of 1976. That was good step, very clever of him, because many of them were sons of the cadres, so many cadres in the regime were happy with those decisions. And Deng Xiaoping also said that Mao Zedong was not 100 percent good, and that he had done some evil. That was more than any Chinese had dreamt. He was already giving so much hope and offering such a bright perspective for the future of China that these dissidents appeared as slightly irrelevant. 

Interviewer: Some people I have spoken to, are mainly pointing at Deng Xiaoping, who first allowed the dissent, and then clamped down on it, closing it all. Do you have an idea why Deng Xiaoping allowed the dissent in the first place? 

Holzman: For me it is very clear, it's the US.  At that time Jimmy Carter was the president, and Jimmy Carter's public policy was human rights, he was a real defender of human rights. Everywhere he talked about that, his influence on the movement was very strong therefore. Many Chinese people sent letters to Jimmy Carter, saying, Jimmy Carter, you talk about human rights, so talk about human rights in China. They appealed to him, and in that way the Westerners had a kind of indirect influence, but very indirect. And Deng Xiaoping knew that his reform was a big adventure, that it could not succeed if America were against him. He didn’t expect to get the support the Americans, but he certainly wanted to neutralize Americans. 

Interviewer: Do you think that this was a tactical attitude, that he actually was not convinced, but that he just thought, we do need a little more… 

Holzman: No, no, no, it was tactical. In January 1979 he traveled to America. That was very important, because at that time Deng was preparing the invasion of Vietnam. He needed the [the support of the] left, the army, the conservatives; he had to show that he was strong. War with Vietnam meant patriotism, so that kept them busy. But he also needed the right, the people who wanted capitalism. He himself wanted capitalism, but he knew that he could not succeed if those people were not pacified. So he played a very clever game, and by going to America in January, he was showing to everybody, now China belongs to the world, now China talks equal to equal with Jimmy Carter. That was very important for China. 

So he needed to show to Jimmy Carter, you see, we have all these young people, of course they are a little crazy, don’t worry about them, we take care of them. He was being a little vague about it, and he clamped down on minzhuqiang [Democracy Wall] before coming back. Then he came back at the end of January [actually the visit ended on February 4], and the beginning of February was the start of the clampdown, it happened slowly, the Chinese way, at the end of March it was finished. The arrest of Wei Jingsheng meant the total closure of the movement. 

Interviewer: That's my last question: In the 1980s we do see, not a dissident movement, but a much stronger reform movement inside the Communist Party, or at least some parts of it. We have these think tanks under  Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Do you have the feeling, or even some information or clues, that they were influenced by the movement from outside the party? Or was it a new independent upsurge of reform ideas that came from the young party cadres? 

Holzman: I think, it had a great impact on them, at least on Hu Yaobang, I do not know so much in respect of Zhao Ziyang. Zhao is different, but on Hu Yaobang it must have certainly had a great impact, because these were ideas that most Chinese did not even dare think. That's the problem with totalitarianism, it keeps you from thinking, it's like [George] Orwell [in his novel "1984"]. You know exactly where you should not go, and you don’t go. And I think this movement opened the windows for many people, also within the system. 

I am only repeating what Wei Jingsheng has often told me, and I believe it's true. I believe that Hu Yaobang in particular, maybe him more than any other, thought that political reform was absolutely necessary for the modernization of China. You can also see it also from Bao Tong's reaction twenty years later. He was mortified that in 1979 they had missed the chance to change China and gain 20 years instead of losing 20 years. And losing so many lives in 1989. Because the massacre of Tiananmen was the direct answer to the 1979 movement. The government knew that this movement was intelligent, and therefore it was a menace to their own existence. And that's why they crushed it. They thought, we cannot survive if these people go on.

[The original interview was conducted in English. It has been slightly shortened and edited.]


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