Chinese Politics or Beijing Opera?

China's political transition is executed like a theatrical performance, a former top Communist Party aide says.
A commentary by Bao Tong
2013-04-12
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china-peking-opera-july-2012.jpg A performer waits backstage ahead of a show at the Beijing Opera House on July 13, 2012.
AFP

When I talk about the transition, I mean the leadership transition of the Chinese Communist Party. China's transition is different from elections held according to universal values, where the voters decide to replace the administration. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party decides, and the new leadership is nominated by the old leadership, and takes over running the government. China has no voters in any strict sense of the term. They only have the "masses," with Chinese characteristics, who can only either be onlookers outside the government, or followers within the government. And even the forces exerted by the latter group are largely there for show. So, when we examine the performance of this transition, it is better to look at it in real terms, from the transition in the Party, rather than from the transitional formalities observed by government bodies.

When the characters in a Beijing opera take the stage, they have certain prescribed movements across the stage, a bright-eyed expression, and they recite their poetic lines by heart. The aim is to put on a good and colorful show.

Our leadership transition show was perfectly executed, full of high spirits, magnificent, and impeccable. The libretto was well-designed, singing the themes of service to the people, taking implementation of the Constitution and fighting corruption a whole octave higher, to exciting effect. At the very least, this shows us that the new leadership understands public opinion, that it is familiar with universal values, and that it knows that the problem of corruption is at a stage where it could bring down both Party and state.

They sang the aria "Chinese Dream," which is something acceptable as a common denominator to the Chinese people, whether they be proponents of ecological civilization, GDP fetishists, corrupt officials, advocates of clean governance, democrats, or militarists. And lastly, we had the "three forms of self-confidence" and a sigh over the fact that no one was man enough to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was a Party security bulletin: "Party members and leadership, please rest assured that the Party will not fall, and that the political system and ideology espoused by the Party for the past 90 years will continue to grow and flourish, immortally."

By singing it up to this extent, they should be able to unite anything that is capable of being united, in order to engage in a common struggle for the China Dream; which can be all things to all people.

To pull this off, you need to have pretty good kung fu. It's not unlike the opera "At the Crossroads," full of thrilling action, and fighting in the dark, with no transparency, but pulling punches and trying to draw no blood. Such tricky moves are bound to make an actor fearful, short of breath and red in the face!

Note that, here, on the first Qing Ming [grave-sweeping festival] after the transition, we were told that we couldn't mourn the victims of wrong decisions and miscarriages of justice, because of "orders from the top." Not far off, while they treated [mourners in] Zhengding county leniently, they still confiscated their video of the memorial event. They also declined to ratify the United Nations human rights covenants, in spite of a petition, for the 15th year in a row, without telling us what was wrong with their having signed it 15 years ago, and without explaining why they were continuing to refuse to ratify it. There was a lot of noise made about fighting the tigers of corruption together, but then they detained those who demonstrated to have the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee declare their assets. They told us they would abolish the re-education through labor system, but then they locked the detainees up in detention centers instead of in labor camps.

Encouragingly, they agreed to investigate torture of inmates at the Masanjia labor camp in Liaoning province, but then, depressingly, they immediately removed any information or commentary about this torture from the Internet, so no one would be able to find out that, under the leadership of the Communist Party, there exists far worse torture than anything that took place in the Zhazi Dong cave-prison of literary creation.

As for that hell on earth, it is only by accident that it hasn't been promoted on a much larger scale. But, as a product of a system with Chinese characteristics, it still has a certain universality, and is characteristically hard to find out about.

In any case, one thing is certain: that those in charge of the main theme tune, the political and legal affairs committees of the time, have turned a blind eye to all the atrocities at all the Masanjias, and tried to cover them up, during a time that was described by the government's recent white paper on human rights as the "heyday of human rights."

So, we can make a preliminary assessment after five months, or after six months. But how many five- or six-month periods can we take in the next five years?

The conclusion? My old eyes are failing, and don't see clearly. What to do? Keep watching, while we each dream our dream and do our best.

The rights violations will continue, as will the defense of those rights. If we see something good, we should say so. If we see something bad, we should say so too. We will get the government we deserve.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.

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