By Austin Ramzy / Beijing
Former senior Chinese official Bao Tong, who spent seven years in prison for sympathizing with democracy advocates, in his apartment in Beijing in January 2009
On Fuxing Road in western Beijing is a vast Soviet-style building that proudly houses old jets, tanks and ships — all memorials to the various military conflicts faced by the People's Republic of China. But just around the corner, in a typical middle-class housing complex, is an unwelcome reminder of how the country manages its political conflicts.
On the sixth floor of an apartment building there lives a veteran of the opaque, unforgiving world of Chinese statecraft. Bao Tong, 76, was a top aide and speechwriter for the secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1980s. Now he lives under virtual house arrest, his every move observed, every visitor screened by a handful of guards, every conversation presumably monitored. The Communist Party would clearly like him to fade into oblivion, to live out the rest of his days caring for his goldfish and taking walks in the park. But Bao Tong has no intention of going out quietly. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)
Over the past month Bao has repeatedly questioned the authoritarian nature of China's central government — in very public ways. He helped draft Charter 08, a lengthy pro-democracy online manifesto initially published in early December by 303 mainland writers, scholars and artists, a number that has since grown to several thousand. Soon after, he released a series of essays through Radio Free Asia that questioned the very motivations and accomplishments of the Party.
Bao Tong says his decision to sign the landmark Charter comes from a long-held regret over joining the Communist Party as a young man. "Sixty years ago I wanted violence. In order to promote Leninism and communism, I joined this Party...I signed Charter 08 to correct my mistake of 60 years ago," Bao said one recent afternoon in the Beijing apartment he shares with his wife. Bao's face is visibly weary, but he sits with an erect posture, and his eyes flash as he discusses history and politics. "This is not about using violent means to change society," he says. "It's about using peaceful, rational means. Everything I do can be boiled down to one word: patriotism."
Charter 08, which is based on Charter 77, a human rights manifesto signed by dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1977, calls for several political reforms in China including direct elections, a separation of political powers, free speech, legalization of political parties and the creation of an independent judiciary. Critically, it doesn't call for the Communist Party to step down, but envisions a system that advances beyond one-party rule, says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It does not say 'We should set up a party to topple the Party.' They say, 'We must work to outgrow the Party and create conditions for a political system that's not based on one-party rule,'" notes Bequelin. "I think this is very new."
Very new, and very unwelcome. In recent weeks, police have interrogated more than 100 of the document's original signatories. Liu Xiaobo, a dissident scholar who was one of the drafters, was arrested by Beijing police on Dec. 8 and remains in custody. In an article published in an official journal on Jan. 18, Jia Qinglin, China's fourth-highest official, warned the country should avoid multiparty systems, separation of political powers and other "erroneous ideological interferences." And in December, President Hu Jintao warned the country to "not waver" in implementing economic reform, a remark that was interpreted as meaning avoid political debate.
Police have questioned Bao about Charter 08, but his experience as a one-time high-level cadre offers him a degree of protection. A top aide and speechwriter to former Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, Bao keeps a picture of Zhao, who died in 2005, on a bookshelf in his home. Zhao was deposed in May 1989, just before the Tiananmen Massacre, for sympathizing with student demonstrators. Bao was also arrested at that time, and spent seven years in prison for "revealing state secrets" and "counter-revolutionary propagandizing." Rather than silencing him, Bao's prison term convinced him of the need to speak out. "If I hadn't had that experience, there is no way I'd be so clear," he says. "It freed my thinking. It freed my eyes. It freed my mouth."
For the Communist Party, that freedom came to tarnish what was supposed to be a triumphal moment for China. Charter 08 was published thirty years after Deng Xiaoping pushed his reforms onto a weary and scarred nation, an anniversary China was proudly marking as it had grown to the world's third largest economy, tens of millions had been lifted out of poverty and the nation was basking in the afterglow of hosting its first Olympic Games.
But the charter's signatories have not been the only crashers of the Party's party. The global economic crisis has caused thousands of trade-dependent Chinese businesses to close in the cities, and sent millions of workers home to the vast countryside, jobless. Now state leaders are crisscrossing the country giving pep talks about the prospects of future growth in China and urging citizens to not worry about the recent turmoil. Discussion of Charter 08 has been blocked from domestic media and curtailed on mainland blogs and websites; few Chinese know about it. But as the economy slows, a murmur of calls for political reform has emerged.
Chinese officials have said that now, when the country is straining under the growing pressures of the global downturn and spending billions to help create jobs, is the worst time to call for democratization. Bao argues that economic challenges need to be met with political adaptations as well. "Because we have an economic crisis, we need to bring the people together," he says. "We can't take every difference and dissatisfaction and let it intensify. Human rights, democracy, republicanism — these help eliminate conflicts, not intensify conflicts." For now the country's leadership is content to let Bao and China's other democracy advocates stew in anonymity, and hope that once again the Party can grow its way out of trouble.