‘When You Have No Credibility … You Are in Big Trouble’: A Chinese Dissident on Xi Jinping and the Future of Protest in China

Wei On the surface, to the foreigners, Xi Jinping appears to be all powerful, with tremendous authority. To Americans, a president, having assumed the presidency, has corresponding powers. Others must put their trust in the president and obey orders issued by the president.

It is different in China. Occupying the office without credibility will not lead to obedience. Chinese officials are very skilled at disobeying without getting caught. There is a Chinese saying, “There are policies from the top, and there are countermeasures at the bottom.” They have various ways to handle it. When others do not have faith in you, when you have no credibility and receive no acceptance, you are in big trouble. Your orders may not be carried out at all. Others might have ways to have your orders vanish into thin air.

Under such circumstances, lacking credibility, lacking confidence from the people or authority among the people is Xi Jinping’s biggest vulnerability. The Communist Party shares the same biggest vulnerability as Xi Jinping. The Communist Party has no credibility either. It agrees with you, makes promises to you, but it will not deliver. When I met with [President Bill] Clinton back then, we talked about this. I told Clinton that he should not offer China favorable conditions first. You have to hold on to the favors until it delivers its promises. You can only hand over the money once you receive the goods. If you pay up front, you might never receive the goods. This is the biggest characteristic of the Communist Party’s duplicity. Of course, it can fool Americans, Europeans, people around the world. It’s easy to fool people once, but people cannot be fooled forever, right? They cannot be fooled forever. Then, once people lose their trust in you, they may not believe you even when you are telling the truth. Then you are in a bind.

Pottinger Some people can be fooled always, but not all people.

Wei Indeed.

Pottinger You spent 18 years in jail. And the first time you went to jail, it was because of your role in 1978, in what became known as the Democracy Wall Movement. You pasted a manifesto onto a public wall, and you were calling for what you called the Fifth Modernization, which hadn’t been included in Deng Xiaoping’s description of things that China needed to modernize, like science and technology and industry and national defense. You called for a fifth modernization, which was democracy. Looking back and looking at this moment right now, do you think that China felt closer to democracy in 1978, or does it feel closer to democracy now, in late 2022?

Wei At that time, we were very close. Bao Tong agreed with me too. According to him, the Communist Party at the time did not know what direction to take. Mao Zedong’s way, Stalin’s way — everyone knew that would not work. Those paths lead to the ruin of the nation. But then what instead?

At that time, Bao Tong opined, the Communist Party could have chosen the path of democracy. Because these Communist cadres, big or small, climbed up to their position under the banner of democracy when they were young. They, including Mao Zedong, never abandoned the banner of democracy, even though what was really implemented was dictatorship. But the party called it “big democracy,” which allows the people to speak their minds, post “big character posters,” etc., etc. The party could have chosen the path of democracy at the time. There was a real chance.

Unfortunately Deng Xiaoping chose otherwise. He chose the traditional Chinese road, a road where the market economy is headed by authoritarian politics. He knew a market economy is superior to a planned economy. There is no doubt about it. But the debate at the time, the biggest argument within the Communist Party, was whether we should adopt Western-style parliamentary democracy, or continue on the path of one-party dictatorship. There were many veteran Communist members with life-long faith in communism who believed that the one-party rule must be upheld. At the time Deng Xiaoping proposed the “four upholds,” with the cardinal principle being “uphold the leadership of the party.” That was how we missed the opportunity at the time. In 1989, when the people rose to demand democracy, although Zhao Ziyang was not necessarily pro-democracy, but at least he did not want to suppress the people, he, perhaps, advocated for compromises. That was another opportunity which we also missed.

Now, under Xi Jinping’s high-handed governance, there is a new opportunity. When authoritarian politics threaten not only the masses, the dissidents, but also Communist officials themselves, people might start considering, is there a different path available? At least officials in the US don’t necessarily end up in prison over just any mistakes. Meanwhile, even without making mistakes, Communist Party officials can be sent to prison simply upon Xi’s displeasure. To the party officials, the American system at least provides more personal security. Given the circumstances, maybe more and more Chinese Communist Party officials would hope to choose a path to democracy. This is not my conjecture, but a conclusion based on the information I have received. Many Communist officials are in contact with me through friends. They hope we can do more outside China to bring about changes inside China. Of course we are working hard, but those inside [China] are unaware of the challenges we are faced with, while we clearly know the difficulties they are living with in China.

Although the opportunity is present, the outcome depends on what choice the international community makes. If the US continues to choose business interests and tolerate authoritarianism, be it Chinese Communist Party or Saudi Arabia, if they are tolerated for business profits, global democracy will inevitably wane. The role of models is increasingly clear to all. If you are not serious about democracy, why would we fight tooth and nail for it? So I think the US, as a beacon of light for democracy, plays a paramount role. Examples of other models of democracy, like democratic European nations, Japan and Taiwan are also important. If these models don’t live up to their reputation, I think democracy in China will also suffer.

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