Can the rule of law and democracy live under the same roof as the Communist Party? The western view is that it is impossible: Something has to give — either the party or democracy.

Perhaps Qiao Shi (born Jiang Zhitong in December 1924), the once almost almighty Chinese security chief whom the party celebrated with a grand state funeral on Friday, was fooling himself or others. But he argued that this was the goal.

Current President Xi Jinping apparently agrees. His idea of bringing the rule of law to China comes directly from Qiao.

Perhaps this apparent contradiction between rule of law vs. democracy can be found in Qiao’s origins.

In 1940, Qiao, a 16-year-old middle-class student with a bright future in a normal career and blessed with the same family name as the then nationalist president (although no relation), joined the underground party in occupied Shanghai. At the time, China was being swallowed by the Japanese, and he, like many young Chinese, felt the ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek, according to the Cantonese pronunciation), was not opposing the invader.

Qiao Shi
Qiao Shi

It was the time when many KMT heads were busy lining their pockets by selling their army’s weapons to unsavory underground gangs collaborating with the Japanese occupiers.

At that time, Qiao and his wife, Yu Wen, niece of Chiang Kai-shek’s closest aide, took a leap: They turned their backs on their families, their privileges, and their pasts and decided to fight for the KMT’s sworn enemy, the Communists.

In rural, backward China, the struggle of the Communists was similar to that of the old bandits rebelling against an unjust emperor. The revolutionaries fought not thinking of Marx and his exploited factory workers, but following ancient slogans opposing corruption and supporting land distribution. Families were very much part of this. The Maos of Hunan were hunted and killed one by one by the KMT to punish Mao Zedong and because they were suspected of siding with their sibling.

To “go communist” for these young people of privileged families must have been like going against what every cell of their body was telling them: Don’t betray your family; don’t endanger your relatives. They chose the idea, communism, over blood to save what was bigger than family — their country.

With hindsight, almost 80 years later, this seems like an unrealistic romantic dream or maybe it was something else that pushed 16-year-old Qiao to join the party, putting at risk his life and those of his brothers and sisters. But certainly it seems the first betrayal must have weighed immensely on his soul because for the rest of his life Qiao, never wandered off from his new-found family, the party, despite the many stabs he received from it.

With the defeat of the KMT in 1949, Yu Wen’s uncle, Chen Bulei, killed himself. His daughter Chen Lian (she and her cousin Yu Wen were closer than sisters) had also defected to the Communists. Yet, her father’s destiny shadowed her.  Some 20 years later, during the Cultural Revolution, and she took her life. The Red Guards accused them and also Qiao of being double agents, of working for the KMT.

Qiao weathered the false accusations. Perhaps the torture the Red Guards inflicted on him was not as hard as the pangs his soul had given him about his family. Perhaps he felt that the party, for which he had betrayed his ancestors, had now betrayed him. We don’t know.

We only know that at the end of the Cultural Revolution, he emerged a rising political star. In 1985, he took over Chinese intelligence after China’s top spy, Yu Qiangsheng, defected to the US. Qiao then overhauled the intelligence apparatus and must have saved both the physical and political life of Qiangsheng’s brother, now China’s No. 4, Yu Zhengsheng. Qiao knew from his own experience that responsibilities are personal and don’t extend to family.

He then rose even higher, becoming No. 3 in the hierarchy at the 1987 Party Congress, in control of the hard levers of communist power: The secret service, the disciplinary commission, and the organization department.

At this point, the many mysteries surrounding Qiao’s life just increased. He was rumored to have abstained in the vote about the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, but we don’t know why. And why was he not handsomely rewarded by the party for his cautious approach in steering clear of Li Peng’s fierce opposition to the movement and of Zhao Ziyang’s possibly naïve support of the students? Or did he oppose the top leadership, as some rumors suggested then?

After Tiananmen,  he remained No. 3. The plum job of party general secretary went to Jiang Zemin, while Qiao over the years gained more levers: Head of the authoritative Party School, chairman of Parliament, and head of the mighty trade unions. His closest aide in 1995 even became party chief of Beijing.

In the mid-1990s when paramount leader Deng Xiaoping suffered a debilitating stroke and Deng’s veteran deputy Chen Yun’s health was failing, Qiao was possibly the most powerful man in China. At the very least, he was the one with the most cards up his sleeve. Why didn’t he go for the top position? Why did he remain in place until 1997 — when the party introduced an age limits rule that was designed just to remove him from all his posts?

Why, despite all his the loyalty to the party, did he give a 1996 interview to the US daily The Philadelphia Enquirer about the necessity of rule of law and political reform, suggesting that the party should be subject to the oversight of parliament? Was he a true reformer and is this why he lost his job? And if so — why didn’t he push harder for his ideas?

Again, we don’t know the answer to these questions. But a possible explanation is that although Qiao believed that his ideas were right, he could not bring himself to betray once again, his family and the unity of the party. It is a form of personal discipline that is known in the Catholic Church when a senior cardinal utters objections and proposals. But when the Conclave of Cardinals doesn’t accept them, this same cardinal bows back — without disturbing the unity of the church and without any schism.

In 2012, when he was ill and removed from political life, 88-year-old Qiao published a book entitled On Democracy and Rule of Law. Two years later, he donated the book’s proceeds to set up a foundation to promote justice and the rule of law.

In the end, Qiao may have believed in change and reform. But he also believed in working within the party and working for the party as a whole to accept these ideas. Perhaps for him, rightly or wrongly, one tantalizing separation had been enough for one life.

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