Party Elder Still Jousts With China's Censors

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FOR nearly two decades, the Communist Party strove to wipe out the national memory of Zhao Ziyang, the reform-minded party secretary who opposed the use of force against pro-democracy protesters in 1989.

So when a former aide of Mr. Zhao’s, Du Daozheng, disclosed in May that he had helped secretly record Mr. Zhao’s memoir for posthumous publication, Mr. Du’s daughter refused to let him walk outside alone for fear of possible repercussions.

She need not have worried. On June 25, a top official in charge of propaganda showed up at Mr. Du’s western Beijing apartment with a reassuring message from Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Communist Party and the government. Mr. Du said he was told that, as an old friend of Mr. Zhao’s, “Zhongnanhai and party central can understand why you did this.”

Mr. Du used to be among those who delivered such judgments. Until he was ousted in 1989 with Mr. Zhao, he served as head of the government’s press and publications administration, an agency that helps enforce censors’ orders.

Now he spends his days jousting with such officials, trying to foist unmentionable topics like Mr. Zhao’s career into the public domain. Helping with Mr. Zhao’s memoir — a rare look at the party’s inner conflicts that was published this May outside China — was a particularly daring thrust.

But strategic ventures into forbidden territory are characteristic of his monthly scholarly journal, Yanhuang Chunqiu. In 2005, he published articles on Hu Yaobang, the former party leader whose death helped set off the Tiananmen protests. Infuriated authorities threatened to reduce copies of the magazine to pulp, according to Mr. Du’s daughter, Du Mingming.

After a string of journal articles last year touched on Mr. Zhao’s accomplishments, party authorities issued an internal regulation so precisely focused that it could have been named after Mr. Du. The order forbids retired government or party officials to serve as publication directors.

Party sources say Jiang Zemin, the now-retired leader who replaced Mr. Zhao, was irritated by the articles and instigated the pressure on Mr. Du to step down. Sitting in the magazine’s musty offices, Mr. Du said he dealt with the order by reshuffling titles.

“I just ignore it,” he said. “I am old enough and tough enough that if there is any pressure from the government, I can hold on here.”

MR. Du survives such skirmishes because he is 86, wily and quietly supported by certain party luminaries. He says as many as 100 former party officials back his magazine’s attempts to draw lessons from the party’s buried past and nudge it toward democratic reforms. Some current officials also sympathize with the effort, he suggests. “Nobody dares close it,” he said, lest that provoke a reaction from “old cadres.” Last year supporters promised him, “If the magazine closes, we will take to the streets,” he said.

They said: “We are old. We are in our 80s. We have heart problems. We will probably die in the streets.”

“So the conservatives don’t take any action,” Mr. Du said, “because they are afraid of that responsibility.”

Others suggest the party can afford to be tolerant. Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of China politics, said that Mr. Du and other liberal-minded party “elders” posed no particular threat to today’s Communist Party, so slaps on the wrists sufficed.

“I admire the courage and the conviction, but the conservatives really won this battle some time ago,” he said. “I really see him as a tragic figure, still holding the flag after most of the armies have left the field.

“He is fighting a struggle against the political tenor of the times, as well as against time itself,” Mr. Moses said.

Mr. Du is not, however, fighting with himself. He sees his modest magazine, printed on newsprint-quality paper and distributed to some 100,000 subscribers for about a dollar a copy, as “the best thing he has done in his life,” his daughter said.

The struggle between truth and propaganda has been a constant theme in Mr. Du’s life. He was an early Communist Party loyalist, dropping out of middle school at age 14 to join the battle against Japanese invaders. After the Communists rose to power in 1949, he dutifully — and falsely — reported the party’s claims of record harvests and free food as a reporter for Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

But by April 1959, he could no longer reconcile the discrepancy with reality. In a 4,900-word letter to a superior, he documented widespread famine and disease in the countryside...


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