Ian Johnson

Going against the dominant line of the communist party seldom ends well. One of the exceptions was Li Rui, a confidant of Mao Zedong, tells journalist Ian Johnson in Li’s obituary for the New York Times. He fought against the Three-Gorges Dam, and most recently against the position of Xi Jinping, while he remained a member of the party he often criticized.

Ian Johnson (on the last part of Li Rui’s life):

In 1975, he was released from Qincheng but sent back to his mountain exile. It was only after Mao died and Deng Xiaoping took power at the end of 1978 that Mr. Li was given back party membership. He returned to Beijing to rejoin the Ministry of Water Resources. He again opposed plans to build the Three Gorges Dam, teaming up with the journalist and environmental activist Dai Qing to prevent the gargantuan project.

He later was transferred to the party’s influential Organization Department, where he helped oversee the recruitment of new officials. But his career ended abruptly in 1984 when he refused to give special preference to the offspring of senior officials.

“Between choosing telling the truth or a promising career future, he always chose the truth,” Ms. Dai said in an interview. “He has been true all his life.”

That began the most influential stage of his life: elder statesman with a conscience.

He lost the battle over the Three Gorges Dam, which hard-liners pushed through in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the defeat of reformers in the Communist Party.

But he wrote a highly influential book about the Lushan meeting, “The Veritable Records of the Lushan Conference,” which countered the party’s story that the famine was not Mao’s responsibility. He also wrote essays, articles and open letters to senior leaders calling for more transparency and tolerance.

Perhaps most importantly, he became the patron saint of “Yanhuang Chunqiu,” or “China Through the Ages,” an edgy journal that took on sensitive historic issues, such as the Great Leap Famine or the Cultural Revolution, that the Communist Party wanted forgotten.

“He was idealistic,” said Wu Si, its editor until 2016. “He didn’t work for political gain.”

But Mr. Li’s vision of a more open and democratic China faded. By 2016, Mr. Wu was fired as head of the magazine and it was taken over by hard-liners

“I’m afraid there was nothing that Li Rui could do,” Mr. Wu said. “It was beyond the ability of one person to protect.”

Mr. Li refused to back down, however, writing critically about President Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao. In an essay, he contrasted Mr. Xi with his late father, Xi Zhongxun, who had been known for his tolerance and opposition to strongman rule.

Mr. Li wrote that around 2006 he went to Zhejiang Province, where Mr. Xi was then serving as party secretary. Mr. Xi took him out to dinner and Mr. Li urged him to speak out against abuses in the system. According to Mr. Li, China’s future leader rebuffed him:

“How can I emulate you? You can hover on the fringes” — the implication being that the ambitious Mr. Xi wanted to be at the center of power.

Mr. Li added a damning comment to the story: “In the West there is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

For the Chinese historian Zhang Lifan, Mr. Li epitomized the tragedy of a generation. Many initially saw the Communist Party as China’s salvation, watched as it turned into a dictatorial force under Mao’s nearly 30 years at the top, and then yearned that the reform era would finally bring changes — only to see these hopes dashed by the party’s inability to renounce authoritarianism.

“The ‘China Through the Ages’ incident was a sign that Li Rui and his peers’ dream would never come true,” Mr. Zhang said. “But I understand Li Rui: To deny the party would have meant denying his own life.”

More in the New York Times.

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