As China prepares to hold the third plenary session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee next month, Beijing has detained a number of activists who spoke out about abuses, as well as influential microbloggers—known as "big V" writers for their verified accounts—who campaigned against official corruption. In this commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service, Bao Tong, former aide to late disgraced premier Zhao Ziyang, recalls the historic third plenum of 1978, when delegates broke free of the official agenda and the debates came thick and fast:
The [ruling] Chinese Communist Party will soon begin the third plenary session of the 18th Party Congress to make decisions on some affairs of state. I don't know whether there is room for substantive debate at this meeting, or whether different opinions are allowed. Because the meetings run by the Communist Party are similar to elections run by the Communist Party: they haven't previously allowed this because they don't want any nasty surprises. Back in the day when there were no lifelong leaders, meetings took place according to directives from the Comintern. Once we had lifelong leaders and a core leadership, then it was all up to them...In such a climate, debate couldn't be tolerated, and the only duty of the delegates was to listen to the reports of the leaders ... and no substantive debate was allowed, before, during, or after the meeting.
Chinese Communist Party meetings have always been this way. Because the issues the Party wants to address aren't mostly to do with solving social issues that ordinary people would like to see dealt with. So there's no need for a lively and chaotic debate. The problems the Party wants to solve are very special problems, which should be finalized by the leadership themselves.
People used to wonder why it was that Mao Zedong...always insisted on being against something or other. Deng Xiaoping excelled at this too. And whether it was Mao or Deng who was conducting, the entire Party had to sing along and chant "Long live [the leaders]" at the top of their voices, without exception.
There have only been two exceptions to this: the Zunyi conference and the third plenum of the 11th Party Congress [of 1978]. The former was an exception because the Chinese Communist Party was very isolated and couldn't fend for itself out of the reach of the Comintern Politburo. The latter was an exception because the catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution [1966-1977] had already pushed the country to the brink of collapse.
Mao's death had left the Chinese Communist Party bereft of its structure, and designated successor Hua Guofeng, along with ... Deng Xiaoping couldn't control proceedings between them. They had agreed privately to stick to economic development and to avoid politics entirely; to "look ahead," and "not to dwell on the debts of the past."
What actually happened was that at a preparatory meeting, before the third plenum had even begun, Chen Yun took the lead, followed by Hu Dian and Tan Zhenlin, after which many other people responded. Deng Xiaoping had set the framework for the plenary session, but then the political topics he wanted to designate as forbidden themselves became the focus for heated debate.
Afterward, some said that Deng Xiaoping chaired the third plenum, but that isn't historical fact. Deng, who had just returned from a trip to southeast Asia, panicked on his return, and tried to change the tone and redirect things, and things got really tense.
If anyone predicts that political topics will be the main thing on the agenda at this forthcoming third plenum, or that the verdict on the Tiananmen Square massacre [of 1989] will be overturned, or that issues like the Cultural Revolution, or Mao, or the Party's ideological direction, or China's economic and political system will be debated, then they will be formally arrested and sentenced to jail as "big V online commentators" by those who orchestrate the main theme tune and the political and legal affairs committee, in accordance with the new spirit of two high edicts [from the highest judicial authorities on Sept. 1].
And no one can rule out the possibility that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection won't get involved as well, ensuring that the mouths of any [aspiring] Chen Yuns, Tan Zhenlins, or Hu Yaobangs are sealed up in plastic.
If that happens, what kind of meeting this third plenum turns out to be will be left to the historical novelists to construct.
But here we have a problem which cannot be avoided: upon what does social progress depend? ... It depends on public opinion, and on lively and chaotic debate, and on the free movement of all those different opinions held by the general public.
Without the free expression and exchange of opinions of every hue and shade, there is no life in human society.
If some say that certain topics are too sensitive or inconvenient to be spoken about openly, then we should take a look at that third plenum that took place 35 years ago, calm down, and draw some objective conclusions.
It isn't heroic to speak authoritarian words, nor to require a mass response, nor to suppress society to the point where it becomes a songless bird.
The banning of different opinions is the last trick of a dying tyrant, and not worthy of emulation.... A nation without different opinions is a nation without life.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.