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Bao Tong, 90, dies; top Chinese official imprisoned after Tiananmen

Mr. Bao, aide to the late reform-minded former Communist Party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, held a photo of Zhao as he spoke at his home in Beijing in 2014. “In the past I believed in communism; now I don’t think it’s worth believing in,” he told a foreign reporter two years earlier as security officers looked on. “Now I just think that Marx had some nice ideas. He said the poor are worth helping.”Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

Bao Tong, who was the highest-ranking Chinese official imprisoned over the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that ended in mass carnage in 1989, and who later became an acerbic outsider-critic of the Communist Party, died Nov. 9 in Beijing. He was 90.

The cause was acute leukemia, said his son, Bao Pu.

For a decade, Mr. Bao was a top aide to Zhao Ziyang, the liberalizing party leader who was ousted shortly before the Tiananmen crackdown. After his release from prison, Mr. Bao — who spent the rest of his life under surveillance — used essays, interviews, and Twitter to denounce China’s autocratic turn.

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In the mid-1980s, he was central to devising Zhao’s political reform proposals to rein in the party’s power and expand public oversight of officials. In his later years, he saw little near-term hope that the party would reopen the way for democratic changes, yet he stayed optimistic that China would eventually take that path. And that shift, Mr. Bao said, would demand confronting the traumas of June 1989, when troops shot protesters in Beijing and other Chinese cities, with estimates of the death toll ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.

“The ‘June 4’ student democracy movement of 1989 was the great event, the one most worthy of the Chinese people’s pride, that I experienced in my life,” Mr. Bao wrote this year in an article for Radio Free Asia. But the bloodshed, he added, had “brazenly opened up a new era where state power has no constraints and civic rights have lost their safeguards.”

He had already been thrown in secret detention when soldiers began shooting their way toward Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. He had been involved in Zhao’s efforts to stave off plans to quell the protests with force, and hard-line officials had accused Mr. Bao of leaking plans for martial law, an allegation he adamantly rejected. A driving force behind the crackdown, Mr. Bao later argued, was a “coup” to derail Zhao and his liberalizing policies.

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Mr. Bao was one of the few survivors from a cohort of officials who had joined Mao Zedong’s revolution as idealistic students, fired up by hopes that the Communist Party could deliver broad democratic freedoms to China.

Mr. Bao died 2 1/2 weeks after Xi Jinping secured a new term, entrenching an authoritarian resurgence.

“What matters for all of us is the future that we strive for,” Mr. Bao said when celebrating his 90th birthday four days before his death, according to his daughter, Bao Jian. “We have to do what we can, should, and must today, and do it well.”

Bao’s wife, Jiang Zongcao, died Aug. 21 at 90. Their deaths have been widely mourned by friends and supporters in China, although official media have not mentioned the deaths and social media sites have tried to stifle the news.

Bao Tong was born on Nov. 5, 1932, in Haining, in eastern China, the third of six children. His father, Bao Peiren, a manager in an enamel products factory, and his mother, Wu Heng, a homemaker, immersed their children in learning.

The family fled the Japanese invasion in 1938, settling in what was then the French-controlled section of Shanghai. Mr. Bao recalled reading “The Observer,” an influential liberal magazine, as well as Mencius, the ancient Chinese sage, who, he said, “made me understand that people should treat other people also as people.”

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After Japan’s defeat, China’s ruling Nationalist Party vied for control of the country with the Communist Party, which Mr. Bao saw as an idealistic alternative to the corruption and despotism of the Nationalists. He joined the communists in April 1949, months before Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic.

“I was elated to join the Communist Party out of my striving for democracy,” Bao said in his memoirs, which are in private circulation. “Back then I didn’t have the slightest understanding that there was a conflict between seeking democracy and the supremacy of the Communist Party.”

He rose in the party organization. In 1955, he married Jiang Zongcao, a fellow official who became an expert in Spanish and later co-translated Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Mr. Bao was a loyal communist, but his educated background and ties to banned liberal traditions created troubles for him. During Mao’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Mr. Bao spent more than six years undergoing indoctrination at a school in the countryside.

After Mao died, Mr. Bao joined a wave of officials who put their energies into China’s modernization.

He was working in the State Science and Technology Commission in 1980 when Zhao Ziyang, a provincial leader with a reputation for innovation, was promoted to the central leadership in Beijing. Mr. Bao became his secretary, advising him on policy decisions and helping him navigate the political currents of the post-Mao, market-friendly era of Deng Xiaoping.

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Early on, Zhao offered an oblique warning to Mr. Bao: “Some people judge me as enlightened in economic reform and conservative in political reform, and that’s quite apt.” Mr. Bao took the statement as a caution not to push for big political changes.

As China’s premier from 1980, in charge of running the government, Zhao focused on loosening state control over farmers and factories, encouraging foreign investors, and nurturing private commerce, all at a time when mention of a “market economy” was heretical to many officials. Deng then decided that “political system reform” was needed to protect China’s economic gains from corruption and inefficiency.

Mr. Bao oversaw a research office integral to creating Zhao’s blueprint for political reforms. Both men knew that Deng could withdraw his support if their proposals went too far.

“We worked together, we ate together — in the first year we even didn’t have any weekends,” said Wu Guoguang, a professor at Stanford University who had been recruited to help in Bao’s office. The work led staff members to suffer dental problems, insomnia and exhaustion. “Bao Tong disease,” they called it.

Both Mr. Bao and Zhao were idealists, Wu said, but “as veteran politicians, experiencing the Cultural Revolution — Mao’s years — surviving so many purges and political campaigns, I think they were highly practical at the same time.”

In 1987, Deng abruptly demoted Hu Yaobang, the party’s liberal-minded general secretary. After Zhao replaced Hu as party leader, he and Mr. Bao scored a major victory when Deng approved — and a party congress endorsed — their proposals for measured political change. Mr. Bao’s role in helping to draft the main report for that congress, a high-water mark for liberalizing hopes in China, was one of his proudest moments, his son said.

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Still, inflation and corruption were feeding public anger and provoking calls from intellectuals and students for bolder political changes.

“I thought that under the conditions then, an outbreak of a large-scale social incident was possible,” Mr. Bao wrote in his memoirs. The key, he told his staff, would be too avoid resorting to the party’s old, draconian ways and instead solve conflict through negotiation.

Mr. Bao’s fears came true the next year, when the sudden death of Hu, the ousted party leader, ignited student protests demanding democratic changes. Hard-line officials favored a tough response.

On the night of May 17, 1989, Zhao called Mr. Bao into his office and told him to draft Zhao’s resignation letter.

Eleven days later, Mr. Bao was summoned to the party’s headquarters, where a car with police number plates waited to drive him to the top-security Qincheng Prison. He had been charged with leaking word that martial law was coming.

“From now on you’re called 8901,” a guard said, Mr. Bao wrote in his memoirs. “I evaporated like a drop of water, disappearing from family and friends, from official circles.”

He refused to turn on Zhao. At his trial, held in secret, prosecutors revised the charges, accusing Mr. Bao of spreading word of Zhao’s resignation, an allegation he also fought.

“I can keep a secret,” he recalled telling Zhao.

He was expelled from the party and sentenced in 1992 to seven years in prison. He was the most senior official convicted in relation to the upheavals of 1989. (Other ousted officials, like Zhao, were detained but never convicted.)

“In the past I believed in communism; now I don’t think it’s worth believing in,” he told a foreign reporter in 2012 as security officers looked on. “Now I just think that Marx had some nice ideas. He said the poor are worth helping.”

His son and daughter are his only immediate survivors.

Bao was never allowed to meet with Zhao after 1989. But in 2019, the authorities let him visit the grave of Zhao and Zhao’s wife.

“They’re finally free and at peace,” Mr. Bao wrote at the time. “I wish that all Chinese people can have freedom and peace in this world.”