We were pretty conspicuous: two Westerners, a Chinese producer, and a Singaporean Chinese cameraman, trooping up the stairs to a pleasant first-floor coffee house in the outer suburbs of Beijing. There were books in the shelves and a few not-too-bad paintings on the walls; it was the kind of place where Beijing intellectuals tend to gather. Some of the people there must have guessed why we were visiting.
We’d come to see the most prominent critic of the Chinese government, Li Datong, who’s a regular at the café. The meeting had been fixed through an intermediary, and that morning, as arranged, Li Datong had slipped away from the security police detail who keep a constant eye on him, and headed round there. He’d booked a private room used for playing mah-jong, a tile-based table game, so we could speak without being overheard. He was there already, a tough, broad-faced man of 66 with rimless glasses. Jovial enough but wary, he wore the dark blue pyjamas and slippers of someone who’d given up working: but he didn’t have the look of a retiree.
Until 2006, Li edited a publication called Freezing Point, a supplement of the official newspaper China Youth Daily. Freezing Point was probing and thoughtful, and reflected Li’s fundamental belief that its readers deserved to hear a wide range of opinions and ideas. But even in those pre-Xi Jinping days it proved too much for the authorities to take; ever since the Tiananmen Square protest and the massacre of 4 June 1989, the Chinese government has been especially nervous about the reactions of the young.
Li Datong was one of the second-tier leaders at Tiananmen, though he seems to have been forgiven for that. Then, though, he ran an article criticising the way school textbooks in China praised the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, as though it was a good thing to be hostile to foreigners.
That was it: Li was sacked. But he continues to write, and in February this year, when it became known that Xi Jinping was planning to abolish the rule that limited China’s president to two five-year terms in office, Li was goaded into drafting a furious open letter that warned that this would “sow the seeds of chaos”.
The ten-year rule was introduced to ensure that no Chinese leader would take ultimate control in the way Mao Zedong had. It was the start of an orderly (if slightly boring) period in politics, during which China grew steadily richer but remained modest in its international ambitions. It lasted for two decades from 1993; first Jiang Zemin and then Hu Jintao stuck obediently to the rules and left office when they were supposed to. But from the moment Xi Jinping strode across the stage at the Great Hall of the People in 2013 to take his place as China’s new president, it was clear he was going to be different.
Some dissidents thought he might be a great liberaliser; China was starting to feel freer, and not long before Xi took over a leading figure whom I visited when he was under house arrest told me he was sure there’d soon be a more democratic parliament, and that he would be elected to it. But it didn’t happen. Everywhere you look in Xi Jinping’s China today, dissent and criticism are punished. So it was especially brave of Li Datong to challenge the authorities.
The day after it was announced that the two five-year terms rule would be removed, Li talked it over with some friends. They were enraged, and Li decided to write the open letter on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, addressed to the Beijing members of the National People’s Congress, China’s ultra-obedient parliament. He was taking a big risk, but he is in a slightly safer position than most of his friends: his father, now in his nineties, was a leading figure in the Communist Party. That gives Li a narrow margin of protection. And the regime knows that there are quite a few people in leading positions in the party who agree with him.
Sitting in the café’s mah-jong room with glasses of pu’er tea in front of us, Li Datong told me, “When my father went to visit a former Communist Party leader recently, he was told, ‘There are people in the party who support your son.”’
Had he received any other backing?
“I’ve had many messages on WeChat, all of them very short. For example, ‘We resolutely agree with you’, ‘Correct!’, ‘Totally support’, and similar reactions. They couldn’t write any more than that.”
Legally, Li said, he ought to be safe enough. The National People’s Congress supposedly represents the people of China, and he was perfectly within his rights to express his views to it. Well, possibly. But it looks as though his real protection is the clear anxiety among some leading party members that Xi is changing the rules in order to give himself the powers of an emperor. If Xi moved against Li Datong, he would be moving against a definite body of opinion within the upper levels of the party.
“I reckon Xi Jinping is trying to be like President Putin,” Li Datong said. “Putin said he wanted to rule for 20 years and that he would deliver a strong Russia. Xi wants the same thing. The country will be even more tyrannical, and the law will be more and more trodden underfoot. The outlook is completely gloomy.”
Would he keep on campaigning? “I will most likely be silenced in the end, because there are absolutely no positive signs.”
In talking to Chinese dissidents over the years, I’ve usually found them quite optimistic about the long-term future. Xi Jinping has changed all that, says Li Datong. The mood in the mah-jong room was irreconcilably bleak.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His novel, “Moscow, Midnight”, is published this week by John Murray
This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right