THE most prominent dissident still living in China has attacked the Communist party’s economic reforms and compared Deng Xiaoping, its late leader, to Louis XIV.
His essays are the second public challenge to the leadership after the appearance of Charter 08, a manifesto for political change that has been signed by more than 7,000 prominent citizens.
The essayist is Bao Tong, 76, who was the highest-ranking official imprisoned after the 1989 crackdown on China’s democracy movement. He served a seven-year sentence and now lives under house arrest in Beijing.
The essays contain devastating language. They will agitate China’s leaders because of Bao’s status as a veteran comrade speaking out while thousands of workers lose their jobs as a result of the world recession. The essays appeared as the party was celebrating 30 years of the “reform and opening-up” policy instituted by Deng, who died in 1997.
Bao says true economic reform died in 1989 when Deng turned against political liberalism and backed rule by a strong state. He argues that the party has merely transferred economic privilege to a corrupt bureaucratic elite. “The price we have paid for it today has been too steep: a cheap labour force, added to massive plunder of natural resources, poisoned air and polluted water,” Bao writes.
The essays were broadcast on the Chinese-language service of Radio Free Asia, a US-funded station, and have been posted on the internet.
The fact that Bao has apparently not been punished suggests to Chinese analysts that the reformist faction inside the party remains influential enough to protect him.
One comrade who worked alongside him, Wen Jiabao, is now the prime minister.
Bao has published criticism in the past but the timing and vigour of his essays are particularly damaging to President Hu Jintao, who has promised a “harmonious society” to be guaranteed by political control.
There appears to be uncertainty, and perhaps division, at the top about how to respond to peaceful critics drawn from all classes. Security agents have detained some signatories of Charter 08.
The state media have issued dire warnings of social unrest and hinted that a debate is going on in ruling circles about the future of China’s economy.
The government is preparing to announce the restoration of universal healthcare and is seeking other ways to rebuild the social safety net of the old communist system.
At least 400m Chinese have been raised out of poverty since the reforms began but Bao is among establishment critics who say a free society would have done better. His most scathing language is reserved for Deng, the man who devised the Chinese formula of economic reform without political change.
Deng was not interested in economics, did not understand markets and never intended to liberalise, says Bao. His aim was to save the party’s power.
Bao, who was the policy director for Zhao Ziyang, the reformist prime minister, moved in the highest circles and knew Deng well enough to make his words dangerously authentic.
“Louis XIV said, ‘L’état, c’est moi’,” Bao writes, referring to the absolute monarch whose claim that he embodied the state may have led to the French revolution. “Well, Deng was the party. He was the embodiment of the party.”