Bao Tong is one of China’s best-known political dissidents. In the early to mid 1980s, he was director of the Communist Party’s Office of Political Reform and the policy secretary for Zhao Ziyang, the party’s former general secretary. Just before the 1989 Tiananmen protests were violently suppressed, Bao was detained and charged with revealing state secrets and making counter-revolutionary propaganda. He was convicted in a 1992 show trial and served seven years, all of it in solitary confinement, in Beijing’s notorious Qincheng prison.
Since his release in 1996, Bao has been under close watch, at times under house arrest, and always followed by police whenever he leaves his apartment. Security around him has been particularly tight in recent months, as the Chinese leadership prepares for its 18th Party Congress this fall, which will officially determine the successors to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
I recently met Bao, who is 79 and partly blind, at a McDonald’s in Beijing, after secret police refused me permission to enter his apartment building in the city’s western suburbs.
Ian Johnson: I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble by visiting you like this.
Bao Tong: You’re sorry? The situation is embarrassing. Well, let’s ignore it. Why can’t I have friends visit? They say I shouldn’t talk before the 18th Party Congress. They’re afraid I’ll talk nonsense. But I think you can decide that. If what I say is nonsense, please ignore it.
When you served in the government, in the 1980s, the older generation was really important. Veterans of the Long March tried to get Deng Xiaoping to reverse economic reforms and many of them supported the 1989 crackdown. What about now? Is there an older generation that still plays that role? Do you think people like former party secretary Jiang Zemin have influence behind the scenes?
There aren’t elders anymore like that. Jiang isn’t a real elder. In the revolution he was a nothing. He doesn’t have that kind of influence. The big difference is that in the past it was one person who decided: Mao and then Deng. Now a few people decide.
Is this good? Some people say the lack of a single strong leader explains why there have been no major economic reforms in the past decade.
Overall it’s a good thing. It’s terrible when just one person decides. You can talk about Deng’s reforms, but what about Mao? He could decide anything but he chose the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. And Deng, well there was June 4 [the night of the 1989 Beijing massacre].
Now the leaders are more deadlocked. If they can’t decide, nothing happens. In America, if you’re corrupt you have to resign. Look at Nixon. He had Watergate and had to resign. In China does that happen? No. Why? Because everyone is in one boat. If that boat turns over, everyone ends up in the water. When I say “everyone” of course I mean the people in power. So in China everyone helps each other out. If you are in trouble, I’ll help you out and if I’m in trouble you help me out. So only in an extreme case like [recently deposed Politburo member] Bo Xilai can someone be pushed out.
Right now it’s nine guys helping each other out [the nine members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee]. That’s the political system. No one wants to rock the boat.
I think that group of men at the other table are watching us.
Forget them. They follow me wherever I go.
The current leadership is set to retire. You knew Premier Wen Jiabao in the 1980s when he also worked for Zhao Ziyang. What was he like then?
His head was clear and he knew what you meant when you talked. If he were under a good leader, he could have done a lot of good things.
What is your view of him now?
He’s hard-working and diligent. But he hasn’t accomplished anything. I’m sure he wouldn’t be satisfied with his work, though in one point he could say, “I didn’t let my own conscience down: I wasn’t lazy.”
But I don’t want to speak badly of him. What did I do? What did I accomplish? People say, “well you weren’t corrupt.” I say, wrong. If I were in the current system, I’d be corrupt too. Do you believe me? Believe me.
Why is the current system so corrupt? Are there too many interest groups?
No, it’s that too many things are off-limits. If you’re in that system, they’ll say, oh, your son should be a CEO. If you say, no, he shouldn’t, then they say, how can he not? If your son can’t be one then ours can’t be one either. Then they’d push you out of the boat. So if you’re in the boat, you’re corrupt. Everyone has a villa and they give you one. One in Beijing, one in Hangzhou, one in Suzhou, one in Shanghai. You say you don’t want it. What? But even the provincial leaders have villas, how can you not? It’s legal, take it. So if I can say I’m not corrupt it’s because I was an official in the 1980s when it was different. There wasn’t so much money and privileges.
So what are your wishes for the 18th Party Congress?
I hope it can solve the current problems. But what they need to do is change the system. If they can then it’s great. So this issue [concerning Bo Xilai] is a chance. If it’s dealt with as a symptom of a systemic problem it’ll be a good opportunity. If it’s not, or they deal with Bo by saying “he’s crazy,” then it’s a lost opportunity. If it’s just go after this person but not the system, then it’s a loss. Then the 19th party congress, then the 20th party congress—they’ll all be the same.
But we on the outside can’t tell what’s happening. Ordinary people can’t act. They can’t speak. They just have eyes and can watch.
Shall we go? I feel I’m inconveniencing you.
Someone just took our picture.
You can get unlimited coffee refills at McDonald’s, including milk and sugar. We should have more coffee.
I’ll go get some more. [A few moments later…] It’s said that people gain faith with age. You’re old; do you have faith in anything?
In the past I believed in Communism. Now I don’t think it’s worth believing in. During the Cultural Revolution I thought Marxism was good. I knew Lenin and Stalin were bad. Now I just think that Marx had some nice ideas. He said the poor are worth helping. That’s good.
But Marx’s class struggle is a problem. Class struggle happens but there’s also class cooperation. It’s not always struggle. If it’s just struggle, then the society will break down. I think this is a big mistake. I think he also exaggerated things, like wanting to destroy property and opposing all ideologies. If you oppose all ideologies, then do you oppose your own? There are too many contradictions. And the idea that everyone will get what they need, what does that mean? Maybe enough to eat but is everyone supposed to get an iPad? And what about a jPad or a kPad? If you define it as everyone gets their freedom, then I think that’s right. How? By making laws and following laws, equally no matter for who or what position in society. Who’s doing that? America. England. Other countries like that. The countries that don’t follow Marx.
When you were in office, the Chinese government had just reauthorized religion. I was recently rereading the Central Committee’s Document 19 from 1982, which permitted people to assemble for religious worship and to rebuild places of worship after the Cultural Revolution. What do you recall about that?
That was [former party general secretary] Hu Yaobang’s document. He supported reallowing religion. I can only tell you Hu Yaobang’s view. He felt that the old policy was too strict. He wanted to relax it. Other than that I don’t think he had any other thoughts. He wasn’t religious.
The issue of religion now is like this. Think of 1976 when [former Premier] Zhou Enlai died. Everyone went to Tiananmen Square to cry and show their grief. Why did they do so? Because they didn’t believe in Mao Zedong, so they believed in Zhou Enlai. They didn’t know what Zhou stood for but they needed to believe in him because they didn’t believe in Mao anymore. So when he died they cried. Liking Zhou was a way to dislike Mao.
Why do people believe in religion today? It’s because of this society. ‘I don’t like the Communist Party, so I like religion. So I believe in Buddhism or Daoism or Christianity, because I don’t believe in Communism.’ That’s how I see it.
You sound like a true Communist!
Religion can’t solve problems, but it can give you a feeling of succor and relief. Religion is a strange thing. If you don’t believe in the present, you bundle your belief and put it in religion. It’s a form of idealism. But it’s got a lot of nonsense in it too.
So if you haven’t turned to religion, what about writing? Do you want to write a book? What about writing a memoir.
I don’t know if I’ll live much longer! I’ve just gone blind in one eye. It’s very hard for me to read or write.
Your former boss, Zhao Ziyang, wrote one. What do you think of Prisoner of the State?
It’s very good. It’s his real work. I think he spent a lot of time on it. Every character he thought over. It’s not like us chatting and talking. He pored over every word.
I started with him in 1980. He came to Beijing in April and in May I was working for him. I didn’t know him. Someone suggested me and he said “oh, I’ve heard of him, let him come,” and that was it.
I’ll walk you home.
No, don’t. You go directly into the subway. I’ll walk home. I won’t be alone.