Chinese Dissident Bao Tong Speaks Out

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Katharina Hesse for TIME

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 jets, tanks and ships — all memorials to the military conflicts faced by the People's Republic of China. But just around the corner, in a typical middleclass housing complex, is an unwelcome reminder of how the country manages its political conflicts.

On the sixth floor of a high-rise apartment building lives a veteran of the opaque, unforgiving world of Chinese statecraft. Bao Tong was once a top aide to Zhao Ziyang, a former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. 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 quietly. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)

In recent weeks Bao has repeatedly questioned the authoritarian nature of China's central government. He helped draft Charter 08, a lengthy pro-democracy manifesto that was made public Dec. 10 and was initially signed by 303 mainland writers, scholars and artists — a number that has since grown to several thousand. Then he released a series of essays through Radio Free Asia that questioned the accomplishments of the Party. In those essays, Bao argued that the Communist Party's motivations for reforming the economy in the early 1980s after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution were not entirely pure. "Even though he didn't care much for economics and didn't understand the market, Deng Xiaoping supported economic reforms with all his might," Bao said. "However, his goal was still to save the Party, and for that reason he was a fierce protector of Party power and status."

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 the NGO 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." (Discussion of Charter 08 has been blocked from domestic media and curtailed on mainland blogs and websites; few Chinese know about it.)

In an interview with TIME, Bao Tong says his decision to sign the charter comes from a long-held regret over joining the Party. "Sixty years ago I wanted violence. In order to promote Leninism and communism, I joined this party. I made this mistake. I signed Charter 08 to correct my mistake of 60 years ago," says Bao. At 76, his face is visibly weary. But he sits with an erect posture, and his eyes flash as he discusses history and politics in the Beijing apartment he shares with his wife, Jiang Zongcao, 76. "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."

The authorities don't see it that way. Police have 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 that 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 also questioned Bao about Charter 08. But his association with Zhao Ziyang offers him a degree of protection. "It's because Zhao still has a big following within the Party," says Bequelin. A picture of Zhao, who died in 2005, rests high on a bookshelf in a place of reverence in Bao's home. Zhao was deposed in May 1989, just before the Tiananmen crackdown, for sympathizing with the student demonstrators. Bao was arrested and spent seven years in prison for "revealing state secrets" and "counterrevolutionary 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."

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 progress. "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, not intensify, conflicts."

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