Bao Tong in Beijing The Quiet Afterlife of a Chinese Dissident

Bao Tong, a former member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, fell out of favor and wound up in prison. Now he lives under house arrest in Beijing, watched by the government because he continues to push for more democratic freedom.

By in Beijing


Nowadays, it isn't easy to visit the old man who, less than 20 years ago, was one of China's most influential politicians. His former friends and colleagues now try to prevent him from meeting foreigners. They also try to keep him from talking to Chinese journalists and historians. Not even his friend, philosopher Liu Xiaobo, is permitted to see Bao Tong, who is considered a threat.

An army of agents from the Chinese Ministry of State Security forms a highly visible presence around the 24-story building where Bao Tong lives. They ask for identification, and a uniformed officer records the names of visitors in a notebook. He is polite and asks visitors to take a seat in the lobby. Electronic devices are assembled on his desk, an array of cameras hangs on the wall and a woman in a blue-and-white polo shirt runs the elevator.

A thin man with large glasses and wearing a blue shirt opens the door to apartment six, on the sixth floor. Bao Tong, 76, was a member of the Central Committee. In the 1980s he was in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the Chinese State Council, a position similar to that of the head of the German Chancellery. Bao wrote speeches for party chief Zhao Ziyang, who trusted him. The Communist Party leadership also asked him to think about ways to reform the political system. Bao's basic concept was that the party should withdraw from the business of governing and give up its omnipresent control. If Bao Tong's ideas had been accepted, the totalitarian communist system would have become more liberalized. Unfortunately, they were not.

When students, who favored such ideas, took to the streets of Beijing in the spring of 1989 to stage protests against corruption and demanded more democracy in sit-ins and rallies, Bao and Zhao begged the party's aging leaders not to use the army against the young idealists.

Instead of listening to Bao, patriarch Deng Xiaoping and his associates remembered Mao's famous statement that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." The tanks from the People's Liberation Army wheeled up to a position not far from Bao Tong's current apartment, and the soldiers were ordered to shoot into the crowd. Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians -- most of them students -- died in those first few days of June 1989.

Zhao was held responsible for the "counterrevolution" and lost all his positions. He was placed under house arrest until his death in January 2005.

Bao Tong, accused of "betraying state secrets and spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda," spent seven years in solitary confinement at Qincheng Prison outside Beijing. After his release, he was periodically placed under house arrest and was, of course, under constant surveillance.

But none of this kept him from voicing his opinions. In August 2007, he was one of 42 intellectuals to write an open letter to the Communist Party leadership demanding the observance of "universal human rights" and public scrutiny of funding for the Beijing Olympics.

Today he lives in a bright, orderly apartment, the walls decorated with watercolor paintings and a family photograph with his granddaughter. The old Jingxi Hotel, the meeting place of the Central Committee, to which he once belonged, is around the corner.

"I would like to see the Olympic spirit of fair play spread into Chinese society," Bao says elaborately. China's market economy, he adds, is "not real, because it is still controlled by the government." And while China may call itself a "people's republic," says Bao, it has no "democratic elections of freedom of opinion." Bao believes that if the country turns into a "true republic" and a real "market economy," then "the Olympic Games in our country will not have been for nothing."

But the aging Marxist is not very optimistic. In his view, the country's new middle class, which is satisfied with condominiums, cars and laptops and is unwilling to challenge one-party rule, is "short-sighted." This, says Bao, is because the stability that these people seek and that the Communist Party wishes to guarantee them, cannot be preserved "if the rights of ordinary people are constantly being violated." According to Bao, the police are quick to clamp down as soon as anyone demands his rights. "I too favor stability, but it should be stability on the basis of fairness and the constitution."

Remembering Zhao

Bao speaks concisely, quoting Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Karl Marx. But wasn't he once one of the Communist Party officials who threw innocent people into prison and held a dim view of freedom of opinion? Bao reaches for a cup of tea and smiles. "There were a few of those cases in our day. We tried to correct the mistakes." In addition, he says, his mentor Zhao argued in favor of reducing the party's influence on the courts and weakening censorship. "That approach was accepted by the Central Committee and the Politburo at the time."

A party official who worked closely with Bao in those days and, together with Zhao, walked onto Tiananmen Square shortly before the massacre to beg the students to go home before the tanks arrived, miraculously survived the great cleanup within the ranks of the party. His name is Wen Jiabao. Today he is China's prime minister, and the number-three man at the Politburo.

Bao remembers Wen Jiabao as a "person who worked very seriously." Since those tumultuous days in June, 19 years ago, the two men have neither spoken nor seen each other. Not even a telephone call, or a birthday greeting? "No, impossible," says Bao.

Wen Jiabao is now one of those top officials for whom freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and democratic elections are meaningless. During the Olympic Games, they claimed to have created a small zone, in three parks, where freedom of expression was protected. But they turned the concept into a trap. Two elderly women who abided by the rules and registered their planned demonstration with the police have apparently been sentenced to one year in a re-education camp. They wanted to protest being evicted from their apartments.

Bao's explanation for the Communist Party's fear of more freedom is simple. "Some party members are concerned that they could lose their lives," he says, "just as former Romanian Communist Party leader (Nicolae) Ceaucescu did when the Soviet bloc collapsed." But Bao believes this fear is unfounded. He says more freedom would also mean more vitality in the Communist Party -- and faith in their leadership by the people.

On his shelf stands one of the few photos depicting Zhao Ziyang, the disgraced Communist Party leader, while under house arrest. His hair is snow-white and he wears a denim shirt. Bao and his wife wanted to visit Zhao's family after his death to offer condolences. But security agents blocked the couple's path, pushed Bao into the hallway and threw his wife onto the floor with such force that she broke a vertebra. She is still in pain today.

"I live under the leadership of the party and the administration of the police," Bao jokes. "When I leave my apartment, they follow me wherever I go. They follow me on foot, in cars and on motorcycles." He points to his computer standing on a table in the living room. "I can only use it as a typewriter. At first they allowed me to have Internet access, but then they took it away again."

And who is behind all of this? Bao is convinced that his daily life is discussed at the highest levels in the Communist Party. He believes that the leaders on their Mt. Olympus are indeed interested in the old man's life, in whether he leaves his apartment and who is permitted to visit him. "They even decided which girl merely opened her mouth at the opening ceremony and which one actually sang."

Bao believes that it would be best if the party withdrew from the country's day-to-day affairs. Only that way, says the old man, "can there by progress in China."

Black limousines with tinted windows are parked on the street below. A man videotapes visitors with a camera hidden in a black bag. Bao Tong, the old comrade who once imagined a different China and even believes in it today, still makes them nervous.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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