Bao Tong: ‘In the Current System, I’d Be Corrupt Too’

For the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson meets with Bao Tong, former director of the Communist Party’s Office of Political Reform and the policy secretary for Zhao Ziyang, former CCP General Secretary. During the 1989 protests, Bao was imprisoned and served seven years in solitary confinement, the longest prison sentence for an official following the June 4 military crackdown:

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.

Read more about Bao Tong and about the 1989 protest movement via CDT.