Chinese champion of political change Bao Tong dies at 90

Bao Tong was one of China’s best-known political reformers (Source – Getty Images)

During pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s, he promoted political reform. However, the Communist Party ousted Bao and imprisoned him for seven years after ending the campaign.

The ad received no response in his home country, where the internet is strictly blocked, even as Chinese activists around the world mourn his passing.

In the years that followed, any reference to the massacre, the precise toll of which is still unclear, and to the historic Tiananmen protests have all but disappeared from public records.

Bao’s name is still inaccessible on Weibo, the tightly controlled Chinese equivalent of Twitter. The message on the screen indicates that “the laws and regulations in force” prevent their display.

Few young Chinese know about Bao because of the Communist Party’s ruthless crackdown on anything related to the 1980s protests or any other kind of dissent.

But after his son Bao Pu announced his passing on Wednesday, saying his father passed away peacefully that morning in Beijing, the place he had called home for decades, condolences poured in from around the world.

He was hailed on Twitter by Wang Dan, a student leader of the Tiananmen Uprisings, as a reformer and rebel essential to opening up China. He said that even though he was “against” the Chinese Communist Party, he still wanted to “show the utmost respect” for former party members like Bao who fought for reform before leaving.

Bao was Zhao Ziyang’s top aide in the 1980s. Zhao Ziyang is currently Xi Jinping’s successor as general secretary of the Communist Party. Zhao had been a prominent member of the party wing that supported reform.

Bao, who was born in China’s Zhejiang province in 1932, joined the Communist Party in 1949, the same year he seized power in mainland China.

He rose through the ranks to become political secretary of Zhao in the 1980s, then general secretary. He worked as director of political reform of the party and member of the central committee.

Bao helped create political and economic changes aimed at modernizing power structures that had remained essentially intact since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

He was one of the designers of the group leadership model that the party later adopted to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of one person.

But as pro-democracy protests grew and spread across more of China in 1989, the party’s hardliners began to worry more about their future. In the end, the protests came to a terrible end as the reformers lost.

Chinese champion of political change Bao Tong dies at 90
Bao Tong with a portrait of Zhao, which he kept in his living room, in 2015. (Source- Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

A few days before the June 4 massacre, Zhao and Bao’s careers came to an abrupt end. Both had openly expressed their sympathy with the protesters.

Zhao had already been demoted by then and lived the rest of his life under house arrest. 2005 saw his demise.

May 1989 saw Bao’s arrest and 1992 saw his trial. He was charged with “revealing state secrets and counter-revolutionary propaganda”, which he vehemently denied, and was found guilty. He was sentenced to seven years in prison in addition to being expelled from the party.

He continued to be closely monitored by the state even after his release. Nonetheless, throughout this period, he rose to prominence as one of the most vocal dissidents and opponents of the party in China. He lobbied for the Chinese government to recognize the protests and what happened on “June 4”, the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

He had been active on Twitter since 2012 and frequently discussed Chinese politics there.

On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, Bao said in an interview with BBC Chinese that he felt like he had achieved “nothing” in his life. He claimed that the future he envisioned for China and the political change he campaigned for never happened.

Jiang Zongcao, Bao’s wife, died in August this year. She was 90 too. Bao Pu and Bao Jian, the couple’s two children, were born.

Bao turned 90 a few days before he died. His son broadcast to the world what he believed to be his father’s last words: “It doesn’t matter that I reach 90, what is important is the future that we should all fight for… we should do what we are supposed to do, then we will realize our value, the value of our life.

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