Bao Tong on Deng Xiaoping

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Bao Tong was formerly a top adviser to Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party secretary who was purged in 1989. After the Tiananmen crackdown Bao was sentenced to seven years in prison. He now lives under close scrutiny in an apartment on Beijing’s west side. I met him there for the first time last year and have gone back a couple times since to get his thoughts on developments in China. You sign in with the guards at his building, who always seem to know the reason for your visit ahead of time. Then Bao invites you to sit on his couch, takes a chair below a photo of a smiling Zhao and talks at length about China’s past and present while quoting Mao, Marx and Lincoln.

The most memorable aspect of those conversations has always been Bao’s fearlessness. Despite the expansion over the past 30 years in what people in China can do and say, there are still subjects like Tibet, Tiananmen, Falun Gong and so on that can lead to trouble if one talks about them to often or openly. Most people avoid them altogether. But there are a few others like Bao who cross over the invisible boundaries without hesitation. I can remember the slight feeling of unease I had when he explained his interpretation of the phrase “with Chinese characteristics”: “What is ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics?’ It’s fake democracy. What is ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics?’ It’s fake capitalism. What does ‘with Chinese characteristics mean?’ Fake!”

It follows that Bao would take on another of those highly sensitive topics, former leader Deng Xiaoping, at a time when Deng’s reform legacy is being widely celebrated across China. In a piece carried by Radio Free Asia, Bao accuses the former leader of “two-sidedness” and putting the fate of the Communist Party above everything else.

He writes:

Once you grasp the logic of saving the Party, it is possible to get a basic understanding of Deng Xiaoping’s logic. Everything he did was done to save the Party. Saving the Party required boosting productivity. So to catch the “mouse” of saving the Party, we needed the “cat” of the market economy.

It was for this reason that Deng Xiaoping supported economic reforms with all his might. He deserves to be credited as a supporter of economic reforms, even though he didn’t care much for economics and didn’t understand the market; and he was their most powerful supporter. However, his goal was still to save the Party, and for that reason he was a fierce protector of Party power and status. Just 18 months after the inception of economic reforms, he was quick to stamp out any small green shoots of “liberalism” in a thorough attack, lest they take root and flourish in a change in climate, and strike at the heart of the Party.

He knew very well that the only system that would prevent a recurrence of the Cultural Revolution was a democratic one; but he resolutely opposed the separation of powers in order to preserve the Party’s monopoly on power. He would occasionally speak some high-flown talk of democracy, but that was just to keep up his image as a man of the people, to win the affection of the people on behalf of the Party, but the charade was never to become a reality. Behind his apparent double-sidedness was a single-mindedness that was pure Party spirit, a clear guiding principle that ran through the apparent confusion.