How America Can Shore Up Asian Order
A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy
When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, I was full of hope for China. As a professor at the prestigious school that educates top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party, I knew enough about history to conclude that it was past time for China to open up its political system. After a decade of stagnation, the CCP needed reform more than ever, and Xi, who had hinted at his proclivity for change, seemed like the man to lead it.
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By then, I was midway through a decades-long process of grappling with China’s official ideology, even as I was responsible for indoctrinating officials in it. Once a fervent Marxist, I had parted ways with Marxism and increasingly looked to Western thought for answers to China’s problems. Once a proud defender of official policy, I had begun to make the case for liberalization. Once a loyal member of the CCP, I was secretly harboring doubts about the sincerity of its beliefs and its concern for the Chinese people.
So I should not have been surprised when it turned out that Xi was no reformer. Over the course of his tenure, the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness. It has grown even more repressive and dictatorial. A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society. People who haven’t lived in mainland China for the past eight years can hardly understand how brutal the regime has become, how many quiet tragedies it has authored. After speaking out against the system, I learned it was no longer safe for me to live in China.
I was born into a Communist military family. In 1928, at the beginning of the Chinese Civil War, my maternal grandfather joined a peasant uprising led by Mao Zedong. When the Communists and the Nationalists put hostilities on hold during World War II, my parents and much of my mother’s family fought against the Japanese invaders in armies led by the CCP.
After the Communists’ victory, in 1949, life was good for a revolutionary family such as ours. My father commanded a People’s Liberation Army unit near Nanjing, and my mother ran an office in that city’s government. My parents forbade my two sisters and me from taking advantage of the privileges of their offices, lest we become “spoiled bourgeois ladies.” We could not ride in our father’s official car, and his security guards never ran family errands. Still, I benefited from my parents’ status and never suffered the privations that so many Chinese did in the Mao years. I knew nothing of the tens of millions of people who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward.
All I could see was socialism’s bright future. My family’s bookshelves were stocked with Marxist titles such as The Selected Works of Stalin and Required Reading for Cadres. As a teenager, I turned to these books for extracurricular reading. Whenever I opened them, I was filled with reverence. Even though I could not grasp the complexity of their arguments, my mission was clear: I must love the motherland, inherit my parents’ revolutionary legacy, and build a communist society free of exploitation. I was a true believer.
I gained a more sophisticated understanding of communist thought after joining the People’s Liberation Army in 1969, at age 17. With the Cultural Revolution in full swing, Mao required everyone to read six works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, including The Communist Manifesto. One utopian passage from that book left a lasting impression on me: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Although I didn’t really understand the concept of freedom at that point, those words stuck in my head.
I should not have been surprised when it turned out that Xi was no reformer.
The People’s Liberation Army assigned me to a military medical school. My job was to manage its library, which happened to carry Chinese translations of “reactionary” works, mostly Western literature and political philosophy. Distinguished by their gray covers, these books were restricted to regime insiders for the purpose of familiarizing themselves with China’s ideological opponents, but in secret, I read them, too. I was most impressed by The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by the American journalist William Shirer, and a collection of Soviet fiction. There was a world of ideas outside of the Marxist classics, I realized. But I still believed that Marxism was the only truth.
I left the military in 1978 and got a job in the party-run trade union of a state-owned fertilizer factory on the outskirts of the city of Suzhou. By then, Mao was dead and the Cultural Revolution was over. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, was ushering in a period of reform and opening, and as part of this effort, he was recruiting a new generation of reform-minded cadres who could run the party in the future. Each local party organization had to choose a few members to serve in this group, and the Suzhou party organization picked me. I was sent to a two-year program at the Suzhou Municipal Party School, where my fellow students and I studied Marxist theory and the history of the CCP. We also received some training in the Chinese classics, a subject we had missed on account of the disruption of education during the Cultural Revolution.
I plowed through Das Kapital twice and learned the ins and outs of Marxist theory. What appealed to me most were Marx’s ideas about labor and value—namely, that capitalists accrue wealth by taking advantage of workers. I was also impressed by Marx’s philosophical approach, dialectical materialism, which allowed him to see capitalism’s political, legal, cultural, and moral systems as built on a foundation of economic exploitation.
When I graduated, in 1986, I was invited to stay on as a faculty member at the school, which was short-staffed at the time. I accepted, which disappointed some of the city’s leaders, who thought I had a promising future as a party apparatchik. Instead, my new job launched my career as an academic in the CCP’s system of ideological indoctrination.
At the top of that system sits the Central Party School in Beijing. Since 1933, it has trained generations of top-ranking CCP cadres, who run the Chinese bureaucracy at the municipal level and above. The school has close ties to the party elite and is always headed by a member of the Politburo. (Its president from 2007 to 2012 was none other than Xi.)
In June 1989, the government cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds. Privately, I was appalled that the People’s Liberation Army had fired on college students, which ran contrary to the indoctrination I had received since my childhood that the army protected the people; only Japanese “devils” and Nationalist reactionaries killed them. Alarmed by the protests, plus the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the CCP’s top leadership decided it had to counteract ideological laxity. It ordered local party schools to send some of their teachers to the Central Party School to brush up on the party’s thinking. My school in Suzhou chose me. My brief stay at the Central Party School made me want to study there for much longer. After spending a year preparing for the entrance examinations, I was admitted to the master’s program in the school’s theory department. So devoted was I to the CCP’s line that behind my back, my classmates called me “Old Mrs. Marx.” In 1998, I received my Ph.D. and joined the school’s faculty.
Some of my students were regular graduate students, who were taught a conventional curriculum in Marxist political theory and CCP history. But others were mid- and high-level party officials, including leading provincial and municipal administrators and cabinet-level ministers. Some of my students were members of the CCP’s Central Committee, the body of a few hundred delegates that sits atop the party hierarchy and ratifies major decisions.
My mission was clear: I must love the motherland and build a communist society free of exploitation.
Teaching at the Central Party School was not easy. Video cameras in the classrooms recorded our lectures, which were then reviewed by our supervisors. We had to make the subject come alive for the high-level and experienced students in the class, without interpreting the doctrine too flexibly or drawing attention to its weak spots. Often, we had to come up with smart answers to tough questions asked by the officials in our classes.
Most of their questions revolved around puzzling contradictions within the official ideology, which had been crafted to justify the real-world policies implemented by the CCP. Amendments added in 2004 to China’s constitution said that the government protects human rights and private property. But what about Marx’s view that a communist system should abolish private property? Deng wanted to “let a part of the population get rich first” to motivate people and stimulate productivity. How did that square with Marx’s promise that communism would provide to each according to his needs?
I remained loyal to the CCP, yet I was constantly questioning my own beliefs. In the 1980s, Chinese academic circles had engaged in a lively discussion of “Marxist humanism,” a strain of Marxist thinking that emphasized the full development of the human personality. A few academics continued that discussion into the 1990s, even as the scope of acceptable discourse narrowed. I studied Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which said that the purpose of socialism was to liberate the individual. I identified with the Marxist philosophers who stressed freedom—above all, Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse.
Already in my master’s thesis, I had criticized the idea that people should always sacrifice their individual interests in order to serve the party. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I had challenged the ancient Chinese slogan “rich country, strong army” by contending that China would be strong only if the party allowed its citizens to prosper. Now, I took this argument a step further. In papers and talks, I suggested that state enterprises were still too dominant in the Chinese economy and that further reform was needed to allow private companies to compete. Corruption, I stressed, should be seen not as a moral failing of individual cadres but as a systemic problem resulting from the government’s grip on the economy.
My thinking happened to align in part with that of Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin. Determined to develop China’s economy, Jiang sought to stimulate private enterprise and bring China into the World Trade Organization. But these policies contradicted the CCP’s long-held theories prizing the planned economy and national self-sufficiency. Since the ideology of neither Marx nor Mao nor Deng could resolve these contradictions, Jiang felt compelled to come up with something new. He called it “the Three Represents.”
I first heard of this new theory when everyone else did. On the evening of February 25, 2000, I watched as China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast a report on the Three Represents. The party, Jiang said, had to represent three aspects of China: “the development requirements of advanced productive forces,” cultural progress, and the interests of the majority. As a professor at the Central Party School, I immediately understood that this theory presaged a significant shift in CCP ideology. In particular, the first of the Three Represents implied that Jiang was abandoning the core Marxist belief that capitalists were an exploitative social group. Instead, Jiang was opening the party to their ranks—a decision I welcomed.
The Central Propaganda Department, the body in charge of the CCP’s ideological work, was responsible for promoting Jiang’s new theory, but they had a problem: the Three Represents had come under attack from the extreme left, which thought Jiang was going too far in wooing entrepreneurs. Hoping to skirt this dispute, the Propaganda Department chose to water down the theory. The People’s Daily published a full-page article demonstrating the correctness of the Three Represents with cross-references to texts by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Deng.
I found this unconvincing. What was the purpose of the Three Represents if it merely restated existing ideology? I was disgusted by the superficial methods of the party’s publicity apparatus. I grew determined to reveal the true meaning of the Three Represents, a theory that in fact marked a bold departure for China. This, it turned out, would bring me into conflict with the entrenched bureaucracy of the CCP.
My opportunity to promote a proper understanding of the Three Represents arrived in early 2001, when CCTV, hearing from a colleague that I was especially interested in Jiang’s new theory, invited me to write a television program on it. I spent six months researching and writing the documentary and discussing it at length with producers at the network. My script emphasized the need for innovative new policies to meet the challenges of a new era. I stressed the same things Jiang did: that the government was now going to reduce its intervention in the economy and that the role of the party was no longer to make violent revolution against the exploitative capitalists—instead, it was to encourage the creation of wealth and balance the interests of different groups in society.
On the afternoon of June 16, four CCTV senior vice presidents gathered in a studio in the network’s headquarters to review the three 30-minute episodes. As they watched it, their faces darkened. “Let’s stop here,” one of them said when the first episode ended.
“Professor Cai, do you know why you were invited to produce a program on the Three Represents?” he asked.
“The party has put forward a new ideological theory,” I replied, “and we need to publicize it.”
The official was unmoved. “Your research and innovation can be presented at the Central Party School, but only the safest things can be shown on TV,” he said. At that point, nobody was quite sure what the Three Represents would ultimately be interpreted to mean, and he worried that my script might be out of step with the Propaganda Department’s views. “If there’s any discrepancy, the impact would be too great.”
Another station administrator chimed in. “This year is the 80th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party!” he exclaimed. Such an anniversary demanded not a discussion of challenges facing the party but a heroic celebration of its triumphs. At that moment, I understood. The CCTV people weren’t interested in the real implications of ideology. They just wanted to make the party look good and flatter their superiors.
Over the next ten days, we scrambled to remake the documentary. We edited out potentially offensive words and phrases, working day and night as my script went through several political reviews by teams from across the party bureaucracy. Finally, a dozen officials arrived for one last review, during which I learned even more about the party’s hypocrisy. At one point, a high-level member of the vetting committee spoke up. In the program’s second episode, I had quoted two of Deng’s famous sayings, which are often strung together: “Poverty is not socialism; development is the hard truth.”
“Poverty isn’t socialism?” the official asked dubiously. “So what is socialism?” His critique went on, growing louder. “And development is the hard truth? How are those two sentences related? Tell me!”
I was dumbfounded. These were Deng’s exact words, and this senior official—the head of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, the powerful agency overseeing all broadcast media—didn’t know it? I thought immediately of Mao’s criticism of bureaucrats during the Cultural Revolution: “They don’t read books, and they don’t read newspapers.”
Over the course of 2001, as part of its efforts to promote Jiang’s signature theory, the Propaganda Department began work on a study outline for the Three Represents, a summary that would be issued as a Central Committee document for the entire party to read and implement. Perhaps because I had worked on the CCTV program and had given a speech on the Three Represents at an academic conference, I was asked to help.
Along with another scholar and 18 propaganda officials, I was sent to the Propaganda Department’s training center near the foothills west of Beijing. The department had settled on a general framework for the outline, and now it was asking us to fill the framework with content. My task was to write the section on building the party.
Drafting documents for the Central Committee is a highly confidential process. My colleagues and I were forbidden from leaving the premises or receiving guests. When the Propaganda Department convened a meeting, those who weren’t invited weren’t allowed to ask about it. We writers could eat and take walks together, but we were prohibited from discussing our work. I was the only woman in the group. At dinner, the men gossiped and cracked jokes. I found the off-color, alcohol-fueled conversation vulgar and would always slink out after a few bites of food. Finally, another participant took me aside. Talk of official business would only get us in trouble, he explained; it was safer and more enjoyable to confine the conversation to sex.
I was disgusted by the superficial methods of the party’s publicity apparatus.
Helping with the study outline was the most important writing assignment of my life, but it was also the most ridiculous. My job was to read through a stack of documents cataloging Jiang’s thoughts, including confidential speeches and articles intended for the party’s internal consumption. I would then extract relevant quotations and place them under various topic subheadings, annotating the source. I couldn’t add or subtract text, but I could change a period to a comma and connect one quote to another. I was amazed that the formal explanation of one of the party’s most important ideological campaigns in the post-Mao era would be little more than a cut-and-paste job.
Because the task was so easy, I spent a lot of time waiting in boredom for my work to be vetted. One day, I sounded out another participant, a professor from Renmin University of China. “Aren’t we just creating another version of Quotations From Chairman Mao?” I asked, referring to the Little Red Book, a pocket volume of out-of-context aphorisms that circulated during the Cultural Revolution. He looked around and smiled wryly. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me. “We’re in a lovely scenic location with good food and pleasant walks. Where else could we convalesce so comfortably? Just go fetch a book to read. All that matters is that you’re here when they call you for a meeting.”
In June 2003, a high-profile press conference was held at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, to unveil the study outline, and all of us who had helped write it were told to attend. Liu Yunshan, a Politburo member and the head of the Propaganda Department, presented the report. As he and other officials took to the stage, I felt a sinking feeling. My understanding of the Three Represents as an important pivot in the ruling party’s ideology had been completely squeezed out of the document and replaced with pablum. Remembering the lewd chatter around the dinner table every night, I felt for the first time that the system I had long considered sacred was in fact unbearably absurd.
My experience with the study outline taught me that the ideas the party sanctimoniously promoted were in fact self-serving tools used to deceive the Chinese people. I soon learned that they were also a way of making money. An official I came to know at the General Administration of Press and Publication, which controls the right to publish books and magazines, told me of a disturbing episode involving a turf war over publishing revenues within the CCP.
For many years, Red Flag Press had been one of three organizations responsible for publishing the party’s educational books. In 2005, the press was in the process of publishing a routine book of readings when an official from the Central Organization Department, the powerful agency in charge of the CCP’s personnel decisions, stepped in to insist that only his department had the authority to publish such a book. He tried to get the General Administration of Press and Publication to prevent the book from being published. But Red Flag Press’s main job was precisely to publish works on ideology. To get out of this fix, the agency vetted the book in the hopes of finding problems that would justify banning it—but awkwardly, it came up empty.
Why was the Organization Department so territorial about publishing? It all came down to money. Many departments have slush funds, which are used for the lavish enjoyment of senior officials and divided among personnel as “welfare subsidies.” The easiest way to replenish those funds is to publish books. At that time, the CCP had more than 3.6 million grassroots organizations, each of which was expected to buy a copy of a new publication. If the book was priced at ten yuan per copy, that meant a minimum of 36 million yuan in sales revenue—equivalent to more than $5 million today. Since that money was coming from the budgets of the party branches, the scheme was essentially an exercise in forcing one public entity to transfer money to another. No wonder the Organization Department promoted a new political education topic every year. And no wonder almost every institution within the CCP had a publishing arm. With nearly every unit inventing new ways to make money, venality has permeated the regime.
Despite my growing disillusionment, I didn’t completely reject the party. Along with many other scholars inside it, I still hoped that the CCP could embrace reform and move in the direction of some form of democracy. In the later years of the Jiang era, the party started tolerating a relatively relaxed discussion of sensitive issues within the party, as long as the discussions never went public. At the Central Party School, my fellow professors and I felt free to raise deep-seated problems with China’s political system among ourselves. We talked about reducing the role of party officials in deciding administrative issues that were best handled by government officials. We discussed the idea of judicial independence, which had been written into the constitution but never really practiced.
To our delight, the party was in fact experimenting with democracy, both within its own operations and in society at the grassroots level. I saw all of this as hopeful signs of progress. But subsequent events would only cement my disillusionment.
A key turning point came in 2008, when I took a brief but fateful trip to Spain. Visiting the country as part of an academic exchange, I learned how Spain had transitioned from autocracy to democracy after the death of its dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1975. I could not help but compare Spain’s experience to China’s. Mao died just ten months after Franco, and both countries underwent tremendous changes in the ensuing three decades. But whereas Spain quickly and peacefully made the leap to democracy and achieved social stability and economic prosperity, China accomplished only a partial transition, moving from a planned economy to a mixed economy without liberalizing its politics. What could Spain teach China?
I came to the pessimistic conclusion that the CCP was unlikely to reform politically. For one thing, Spain’s transition was initiated by reformist forces within the post-Franco regime, such as King Juan Carlos I, who placed national interests above their personal interests. The CCP, having come to power in 1949 through violence, was deeply wedded to the idea that it had earned a permanent monopoly on political power. The party’s record, particularly its crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, demonstrated that it would not give up that monopoly peacefully. And none of the post-Deng leaders had the courage to push for political reform; they simply wanted to pass the buck to future leaders.
I also learned that after Franco’s death, Spain quickly created a favorable environment for reform, consolidating judicial independence and expanding freedom of the press. It even incorporated opposition forces into the transition process. The CCP, by contrast, has treated demands for social and economic justice as threats to its power, suppressing civil society and restricting people’s liberties. The regime and the people have been locked in confrontation for decades, making reconciliation unthinkable.
My newly acquired understanding of the democratic transition in Spain, along with what I already knew about those in the former Soviet bloc, led me to fundamentally reject the Marxist ideology in which I once had unshakable faith. I came to realize that the theories Marx advanced in the nineteenth century were limited by his own intellect and the historical circumstances of his time. Moreover, I saw that the highly centralized, oppressive version of Marxism promoted by the CCP owed more to Stalin than to Marx himself. I increasingly recognized it as an ideology formed to serve a self-interested dictatorship. Marxism, I began to hint in publications and lectures, should not be worshiped as an absolute truth, and China had to start the journey to democracy. In 2010, when some liberal scholars published an edited volume called Toward Constitutionalism, I contributed an article that discussed the Spanish experience.
My vision—shared with other liberal scholars—was that China would start by implementing democracy within the party, which, over the long run, would lead to a constitutional democracy. China would have a parliament, even a real opposition party. In my heart, I worried that the CCP might violently resist such a transition, but I kept that thought to myself. Instead, when speaking with colleagues and students, I argued that such a transition would be good for China and even for the party itself, which could consolidate its legitimacy by making itself more accountable to the people. Many of the officials I taught acknowledged that the party faced problems, but they could not say so themselves. Instead, they cautiously urged me to persuade their superiors.
The problem was that at that very time, Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, was moving in the opposite direction. In 2003, while in the process of taking over the reins of power, Hu had put forward “the Scientific Outlook on Development,” his substitute for Jiang’s Three Represents. The concept was another attempt to justify China’s mixed development model with a thin cover of Marxist-sounding ideology, and it avoided the big questions facing China. China’s breakneck development was producing social conflict as farmers’ land was seized for development and factories squeezed workers for more profits. The number of petitioners seeking redress from the government increased dramatically, and nationwide, demonstrations eventually exceeded 100,000 per year. To me, the discontent showed that it was becoming harder for China to develop its economy without liberalizing its politics.
Hu thought otherwise. “Don’t muck up things,” he said in 2008, at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the policy of reform and opening. I understood this to mean that the economic, political, and ideological reforms the party had made so far should be maintained but not pushed forward. Hu was defending himself against accusations from both sides: from conservatives who thought that reform had gone too far and from liberals who thought it hadn’t gone far enough. So China, under his watch, entered a period of political stagnation, a decline similar to what the Soviet Union experienced under Leonid Brezhnev.
Thus it was with optimism that I looked to Xi when it became clear that he was going to take power. The easy reforms had all been made 30 years ago; now it was time for the hard ones. Given the reputation of Xi’s father, a former CCP leader with liberal inclinations, and the flexible style that Xi himself had displayed in previous posts, I and other advocates of reform hoped that our new leader would have the courage to enact bold changes to China’s political system. But not everyone had such confidence in Xi. The skeptics I knew fell into two categories. Both proved prescient.
The first group consisted of princelings—descendants of the party’s founders. Xi was a princeling, as was Bo Xilai, the dynamic party chief of Chongqing. Xi and Bo rose to senior provincial and ministerial positions at almost the same time, and both were expected to join the highest body in the CCP, the Politburo Standing Committee, and were considered top contenders to lead China. But Bo fell out of the leadership competition early in 2012, when he was implicated in his wife’s murder of a British businessman, and the party’s senior statesmen backed the safe and steady Xi. The princelings I knew, familiar with Xi’s ruthlessness, predicted that the rivalry would not end there. Indeed, after Xi took power, Bo was convicted of corruption, stripped of all his assets, and sentenced to life in prison.
The highly oppressive version of Marxism promoted by the CCP owed more to Stalin than to Marx himself.
The other group of skeptics consisted of establishment scholars. More than a month before the 18th Party Congress of November 2012, when Xi would be formally unveiled as the CCP’s new general secretary, I was chatting with a veteran reporter from a major Chinese magazine and a leading professor at my school who had observed Xi’s career for a long time. The two had just wrapped up an interview, and before leaving, the reporter tossed out a question: “I hear that Xi Jinping lived in the Central Party School compound for a period of time. Now he’s about to become the party’s general secretary. What do you think of him?” The professor’s lip twitched, and he said with disdain that Xi suffered from “inadequate knowledge.” The reporter and I were stunned at this blunt pronouncement.
In spite of these negative views, I willingly suspended disbelief and put my hopes in Xi. But shortly after Xi’s ascension, I started to have my doubts. A December 2012 speech he gave suggested a reformist and progressive mentality, but other statements hinted at a throwback to the pre-reform era. Was Xi headed left or right? I had just retired from the Central Party School, but I still kept in touch with my former colleagues. Once when I was talking to some of them about Xi’s plans, one of them said, “It’s not a question of whether Xi is going left or right but rather that he lacks basic judgment and speaks illogically.” Everyone fell silent. A chill ran down my spine. With deficiencies like these, how could we expect him to lead a struggle for political reform?
I soon concluded that we probably could not. After Xi released his comprehensive reform plan in late 2013, business and academic circles excitedly predicted that he would push ahead with major reforms. My feeling was just the opposite. The plan avoided all the key issues of political reform. China’s long-standing problems of corruption, excessive debt, and unprofitable state enterprises are rooted in party officials’ power to meddle in economic decisions without public supervision. Trying to liberalize the economy while tightening political control was a contradiction. Yet Xi was launching the biggest ideological campaign since Mao’s death to revive Maoist rule. His plan called for intensified societal surveillance and a clampdown on free expression. A ban on any discussion of constitutional democracy and universal values was shamelessly promoted under the banner of “governance, management, service, and law.”
This trend continued with a package of legal reforms passed in 2014, which further exposed the party’s intent to use the law as a tool for maintaining totalitarian rule. At this point, Xi’s perverse tendencies and the CCP’s political regression were clear. If I once had a vague hope for Xi and the party, my illusions were now shattered. Subsequent events would only confirm that when it came to reform, Xi was taking China from stagnation to regression. In 2015, the party rounded up hundreds of defense lawyers. The next year, it launched a Cultural Revolution–style campaign against an outspoken real estate tycoon. It was my reaction to that episode that landed me in hot water.
The tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, had increasingly come into conflict with Xi, whom he criticized for censoring Chinese media. In February 2016, a CCP website labeled Ren as “anti-party.” I didn’t know Ren personally, but his case struck me as especially disturbing because I had long relied on the principle that within the CCP, we were allowed—even encouraged—to speak freely in order to help the party correct its own mistakes. Here was a longtime party member who had been demonized for doing just that. Having lived through the Cultural Revolution, I knew that people branded with the label “anti-party” were deprived of their rights and subjected to harsh persecution. Since a defense of Ren could never be published in censored media outlets, I wrote one up and sent it to a WeChat group, hoping my friends would share it with their contacts. My article went viral.
Although most of my article simply quoted the party’s constitution and code of conduct, the Central Party School’s disciplinary committee accused me of serious errors. I faced a series of intimidating interviews in which my interrogators applied psychological pressure and laid word traps in an effort to induce a false confession of wrongdoing. It was uncomfortable, but I recognized the process as a psychological contest. If I didn’t show fear, I realized, they would lose half the battle. And so a stalemate ensued: I kept publishing, and the authorities kept calling me in for questioning. Soon, I concluded that security agencies were tapping my phone, reading my digital correspondence, and following me to see where I went and with whom I met. Retired professors from the Central Party School usually need permission only from the school to travel to Hong Kong or abroad, but now the school hinted that I had to clear such trips with the Ministry of State Security in the future.
In April 2016, the text of a speech I had given a few months earlier at Tsinghua University—in which I argued that if ideology violates common sense, it deteriorates into lies—was published on an influential website in Hong Kong. The timing was bad: Xi had just announced that some of the free inquiry taking place at the Central Party School had gone too far and urged greater supervision of its professors. As a result, in early May, I was called in again by the school’s disciplinary committee and accused of opposing Xi. From then on, the CCP blocked me from all media in China—print, online, television. Even my name could not be published. Then, one night in July, I was summoned again to a meeting at the Central Party School, where a member of the disciplinary committee placed a foot-tall pile of documents on the table in front of me. “There’s already this much material on you,” he said. “Think it over.” It was clear that I was being warned to keep silent and that if I so much as tweeted a word, I would be subjected to disciplinary action, including reduced retirement benefits. I was indignant at my treatment, even though I understood that others had been dealt with even more harshly.
If the CCP’s officials are capable of such despicable actions, how can the party be trusted?
In all my years as a member of the CCP, I had never violated a single rule, nor had I ever been called in for a reprimand. But now, I was regularly interrogated by party officials. The school’s disciplinary committee repeatedly threatened the humiliating prospect of holding a large public meeting and announcing a formal punishment. At the end of each conversation, my interrogators demanded I keep it a secret. It was all part of an underworld that couldn’t be exposed to the light of day.
Then came a cover-up of police brutality that triggered my final break with Xi and the party. Earlier, in May 2016, Lei Yang, an environmental scientist, was on his way to the airport to pick up his mother-in-law when, in circumstances that remain murky, he died in the custody of the Beijing police. In order to evade responsibility for the crime, the police framed Lei, alleging that he had been soliciting a prostitute. His classmates from his university days, outraged at this attempt at defamation, banded together to help his family seek justice, starting a campaign that reverberated throughout China. To quell the fury, the CCP’s top leaders ordered an investigation. The prosecution agreed to an independent autopsy, and a trial was scheduled to argue the matter.
A strange thing happened next: Lei’s parents, wife, and children were put under house arrest, and the local government offered them massive compensation, about $1 million, to give up their pursuit of the truth. When Lei’s family refused, the payment was increased to $3 million. Even after a $3 million house was thrown in, Lei’s wife insisted on clearing her late husband’s name. The government then pressured Lei’s parents, who knelt before their daughter-in-law and begged her to abandon the case. In December, prosecutors announced that they would not charge anyone for Lei’s death, and his family’s lawyer revealed that he had been forced to stand down.
When I learned of this outcome, I sat at my desk all night, overcome with grief and anger. Lei’s death was a clear-cut case of wrongdoing, and instead of punishing the police officers responsible, their superiors had tried to use the people’s hard-earned tax money to settle the matter out of court. Officials were closing ranks rather than serving the people. I asked myself, If the CCP’s officials are capable of such despicable actions, how can the party be trusted? Most of all, I wondered how I could remain part of this system.
After 20 years of hesitation, confusion, and misery, I made the decision to emerge from the darkness and make a complete break with the party. Xi’s great leap backward soon left me with no other choice. In 2018, Xi abolished presidential term limits, raising the prospect that I would have to live indefinitely under neo-Stalinist rule. The next summer, I was able to travel to the United States on a tourist visa. While there, I received a message from a friend telling me that the Chinese authorities, accusing me of “anti-China” activities, would arrest me if I returned. I decided to prolong my visit until things calmed down. Then the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, and flights to China were canceled, so I had to wait a little longer. At the same time, I was disgusted by Xi’s mishandling of the outbreak and signed a petition supporting Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who had been harassed by police for warning his friends about the new disease and eventually died of it. I received urgent phone calls from the authorities at the Central Party School demanding that I come home.
But the atmosphere in China was growing darker. Ren, the dissident real estate tycoon, disappeared in March and was soon expelled from the party and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Meanwhile, my problems with the authorities were compounded by the unauthorized release of a private talk I had given online to a small circle of friends in which I had called the CCP “a political zombie” and said that Xi should step down. When I sent friends a short article I had written denouncing Xi’s repressive new national security law in Hong Kong, someone leaked that, too.
I knew I was in trouble. Soon, I was expelled from the party. The school stripped me of my retirement benefits. My bank account was frozen. I asked the authorities at the Central Party School for a guarantee of my personal safety if I returned. Officials there avoided answering the question and instead made vague threats against my daughter in China and her young son. It was at this point that I accepted the truth: there was no going back.
The United States Too Often Finds Reasons Not to Act