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THE PRESIDENT IN CHINA

Once-Jailed Official Defies Threats, Speaks Out

Rights: In phone conversation, Bao Tong gives The Times his views on Clinton's trip and Chinese politics.

June 29, 1998|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — Only a day after President Clinton's news conference with his Chinese counterpart seemed to point to a new era of openness here, security officials Sunday came to the home of a former senior Communist Party official jailed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and sternly warned him to keep his mouth shut.

"I was told by the police I have to refuse to give any interview to any foreign journalists," said Bao Tong, who is the highest-ranking proponent of democracy to emerge clearly from within the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party. "They stayed in my house for two hours." As a result, Bao felt compelled to cancel a planned meeting with a Times reporter.

Nevertheless, Bao braved the threats and, in a remarkable 75-minute telephone conversation in Beijing on Sunday night, offered his views on Clinton, Chinese political leaders, Marxism, democracy and the tumultuous events of 1989 that led to his imprisonment.

"The president [Clinton] enjoys freedom of speech," Bao quipped, referring to Clinton's frank exchanges with Chinese President Jiang Zemin aired on Chinese television Saturday.

But for the Chinese people, he observed, there is not the same freedom. "Maybe there is freedom of speech with Chinese characteristics," Bao, speaking in English, said sarcastically.

Bao said he felt Jiang had employed the unusual news conference over the weekend to demonstrate his own political strength inside China by standing up to the American president. At the same time, Bao praised Clinton's performance, saying that "he expressed his ideas clearly and properly" in what amounted to a political debate with the Chinese president.

A decade ago, Bao Tong was a figure in China comparable to, say, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles or National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. He was the chief of staff to Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang until the two men opposed a crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989.

Zhao was ousted from power a few days before the bloody military assault in Beijing on June 4, 1989. He remains today under a loose form of house arrest.

"I haven't met him [Zhao] for more than nine years," Bao said of his former boss. "I don't know his phone number. And if I knew it, I don't think I can call him on the phone." Jiang is Zhao's direct successor as head of the Communist Party.

Bao himself was thrown into prison in late May 1989, soon after then-Premier Li Peng declared martial law in Beijing, where nearly a million demonstrators had gathered to seek democracy and an end to corruption and nepotism within the Communist Party.

On May 28, 1989, Bao recalled, "They called me at my home to come to have a meeting." Where was the meeting supposed to be? "Middle South Sea . . . you know it?" Bao asked. That is the English-language rendition of Zhongnanhai, the compound where China's highest leaders live and work.

"And when I got into the car, I was driven to the prison."

It was Qincheng Prison, the jail outside Beijing where political prisoners are often kept--the same place where Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's widow, was taken a few weeks after her husband's death to languish for the rest of her life.

Bao said he spent the entire time at Qincheng in solitary confinement, "alone all the time for seven years." Finally, he was released in May 1996.

In late May of this year, Bao was told that his probation was over and that his political rights had been restored. In a couple of interviews immediately afterward, he quickly began criticizing the current leadership of the Communist Party, of which he is no longer a member.

Chinese security officials warned him to stop.

"The first [warning] was issued on June 4, and the second was issued on June 8," Bao said. "They told me it is improper for me to receive any illegal interviews made by any foreign journalists without authorization from the government."

On Sunday, when security officials visited Bao's home and told him to stop talking, it was the third warning he had received in a month. "They said the first time, maybe I didn't know the law. The second time, maybe I didn't understand. They said, 'This time, you should obey the law,' " Bao explained. He said he still doesn't know what the law and rules are for interviews.

Bao was upset by this latest visit. He said he reminded the security officials visiting his home that only a day earlier, at the Saturday news conference, the Chinese president "confirmed that every Chinese citizen is given freedom of speech by the [Chinese] Constitution."

"I said that if I speak out frankly, it will do no harm to the government. It will benefit the government. I said if I refuse to answer the questions put forward by the newsmen, everyone will think I am suffering from some pressure from the government."

*

Chinese officials told him that he had full freedom of speech, Bao said, but then they added: "You cannot answer any questions put forward by the journalists."

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