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.
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.”