For Xi, a his­tory les­son is in or­der, ex-o∞cial says

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SI­MON DENYER si­mon.denyer@wash­ Luna Lin con­trib­uted to this re­port.

bei­jing — Twice Bao Tong rose within the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s hi­er­ar­chy, and twice he was dra­mat­i­cally cut down. He has en­dured long spells in jail and “re-ed­u­ca­tion” for fail­ing to fall into line be­hind the hard-lin­ers holding power.

So it is per­haps no sur­prise that this 85-year-old views the Chi­nese pres­i­dent’s lat­est at­tempt to im­pose his dogma on the en­tire na­tion — un­der the ban­ner of Xi Jin­ping Thought — with a con­sid­er­able de­gree of skep­ti­cism.

“In China’s his­tory of more than 3,000 years, there were other lead­ers who tried to use their own thoughts to reg­u­late the thoughts of oth­ers,” he said in an in­ter­view in his mod­est Bei­jing apart­ment. “But none were suc­cess­ful. There were only failed at­tempts.”

Bao was the most se­nior Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cial to be in­car­cer­ated for sym­pa­thiz­ing with the 1989 Tianan­men Square protests, thrown into jail May 28, a week be­fore a mil­i­tary crack­down that left hun­dreds if not thou­sands dead.

Bao was to re­main in soli­tary con­fine­ment for seven years and, even to­day, lives un­der con­stant sur­veil­lance, he said, with three agents fol­low­ing him on foot and oth­ers in a car when­ever he leaves his home. Yet he still man­ages an oc­ca­sional in­ter­view with the foreign me­dia, his man­ner af­fa­ble, his opin­ions tren­chant, and with a cig­a­rette never far from his lips.

In the late 1980s, Bao had worked as a top aide to Com­mu­nist Party Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Zhao Ziyang, help­ing push China in a more lib­eral, re­formist di­rec­tion — un­til the June 4 crack­down ended that dream. Zhao was de­moted, purged and placed un­der house ar­rest for ex­press­ing sym­pa­thy for the stu­dents’ de­mands and op­pos­ing Deng Xiaop­ing’s de­ci­sion to send in the troops.

Bao was thrown into Bei­jing’s max­i­mum-se­cu­rity Qincheng Pri­son, a des­ti­na­tion for many of the na­tion’s most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

To­day, a pho­to­graph of Zhao sits proudly on a shelf in his apart­ment, and he talks af­fec­tion­ately of a man who “treated ev­ery­one as equals” and wanted to turn over de­ci­sion-mak­ing power from the party to the peo­ple.

There is no such af­fec­tion in his com­ments about Pres­i­dent Xi, whom he de­scribes as a “hard-liner” and a throw­back to Mao Ze­dong.

Last month, the Com­mu­nist Party en­shrined Xi’s name in its con­sti­tu­tion as it granted him five more years in power: Xi Jin­ping Thought now sits along­side Mao Ze­dong Thought and Deng Xiaop­ing The­ory in the party’s ide­o­log­i­cal canon.

“It is called Xi Jin­ping Thought, the new thought, but they are just old ideas, not new ideas,” said Bao. “Ideas like ‘the party leads ev­ery­thing’ — they are ex­act quotes from Mao Ze­dong. Why call them new ideas?”

Bao knows only too well the mad­ness that can be un­leashed when one man rises to ab­so­lute power over the Chi­nese peo­ple, and when of­fi­cials are too scared to tell him when he is wrong.

“The mis­takes Mao made were all huge,” he said. “Mao didn’t rec­og­nize his mis­take when the Great Leap For­ward led to a famine that caused mil­lions of deaths; he didn’t rec­og­nize his mis­take in the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion in which tens of mil­lions were purged.”

In 1966, only days af­ter the be­gin­ning of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, Bao, who was work­ing as a bu­reau­crat, was de­nounced as a “cap­i­tal­ist roader.”

Barred from his of­fice, he spent a year clean­ing toi­lets, an­other year do­ing hard la­bor in a re-ed­u­ca­tion camp and the bet­ter part of a decade work­ing the fields of ru­ral China. He was re­ha­bil­i­tated, like mil­lions of oth­ers, only af­ter Mao’s death in 1976.

“There was only one slo­gan at that time — ‘Down with any­one who op­poses Chair­man Mao,’ ” he said. “But in the end Mao failed, too. He failed so badly his wife was la­beled a coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and so he him­self be­came part of a coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary fam­ily.”

Mao’s widow Jiang Qing was ar­rested af­ter his death for her role in the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment, fi­nally com­mit­ting sui­cide in 1991.

Bao also draws lessons from much fur­ther back in his na­tion’s his­tory to warn of the dan­gers of unchecked power, start­ing with King Li of the Zhou dy­nasty, who ruled in the 9th cen­tury B.C. The Gen­eral His­tory of China, an 18th-cen­tury text by French Je­suit his­to­rian Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, de­scribes Li as proud, con­ceited and cruel.

In­deed, so con­scious was Li of how much he was hated, he sup­pos­edly for­bade his sub­jects “on pain of death to con­verse to­gether, or even whis­per to one an­other,” Du Halde wrote, so that peo­ple could be seen walk­ing the streets with down­cast eyes, “in mourn­ful si­lence.”

Even­tu­ally, peas­ants and sol­diers rose up against Li, and he died in ex­ile.

Em­peror Qin Shi Huang is re­mem­bered as the first ruler of a united China in the 3rd cen­tury B.C., and for his mau­soleum guarded by the Ter­ra­cotta Army, but he also al­legedly banned and burned books, and ex­e­cuted schol­ars.

The Hongwu Em­peror, who es­tab­lished the Ming dy­nasty in the 14th cen­tury, expected to­tal obe­di­ence from his sub­jects, in­flict­ing tor­ture and death on those who op­posed him, in­clud­ing, it is said, some of his own ad­vis­ers.

But in the end, Bao said, these rulers’ dy­nas­ties foundered and were over­thrown.

“If you want to im­i­tate Chair­man Mao, that’s okay, but the prob­lem is whether you will suc­ceed,” Bao said, re­fer­ring to Xi. “I can’t say whether his at­tempt will suc­ceed or not. Only time will tell.”

Bao blames Deng for end­ing the dream of po­lit­i­cal change in China, and for in­sti­gat­ing an era of cor­rup­tion and grow­ing eco­nomic in­equal­ity that “broke” Chi­nese so­ci­ety.

But Bao has no faith in Xi’s anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign, which the gov­ern­ment says has led to some form of pun­ish­ment for more than a mil­lion of­fi­cials.

“It’s a se­lec­tive anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign. Its na­ture is the se­lec­tive pro­tec­tion of cor­rup­tion,” Bao said. “When you purge some cor­rupt of­fi­cials, you are pro­tect­ing the oth­ers. You pro­tect the cor­rupt sys­tem, and you pro­tect cor­rupt peo­ple who sup­port you.”

Bao was one of the first sig­na­to­ries of Char­ter 08, a man­i­festo for demo­cratic changes is­sued in late 2008. The only way to fight cor­rup­tion prop­erly, he says, is for in­de­pen­dent su­per­vi­sion of the ef­fort.

“Power tends to cor­rupt,” Bao said, quot­ing Bri­tain’s Lord Ac­ton, “and ab­so­lute power cor­rupts ab­so­lutely.”


“It is called Xi Jin­ping Thought, the new thought, but they are just old ideas, not new ideas,” Bao Tong says.

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