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Superpower of secrets

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

Few countries pose as many mysteries as the Chinese empire. This was already the case under its dynasties and continues under the People’s Republic. While CP leaders praise their rule as transparent, their constant secrecy proves the opposite. For example, in their handling of the Covid pandemic that broke out in Wuhan three years ago. In the beginning, Beijing stonewalled any serious investigations into its origins. In the end, its position on the pandemic changed completely overnight.

EU Chamber President Joerg Wuttke, who knows China’s decision-makers like no other foreigner and has encountered many unexplained mysteries in his more than three decades on the ground, was completely stunned: “For three years, the virus had practically guided Beijing’s hand. Then, suddenly, all signals turned from red to green. “What happened?”

When there is too much speculation, Beijing’s leadership sometimes reveals its secrets – but in the Chinese way. For example, the CCTV evening news on February 19 before Chinese New Year was significantly longer than usual. The reason was a special news item shortly before the Spring Festival. The CCTV announcer said: Party leader Xi Jinping and all CC comrades “wish the old comrades” all the best for the festival 中央领导同志慰问老同志. Then the announcer started listing 109 names for several minutes, without photos or any explanations about each person.

Insiders knew: He read out the illustrious retirees list of the highest party and state pensioners. The media are not allowed to report anything about them, not even how and where they spend their retirement and whether they are still in good health. All these are state secrets. This has been internally decided by the party.

Only once a year does it make an exception by giving its salute to the elderly on state television by listing their names. Viewers discover who is still alive and, more importantly, who still enjoys the good graces of today’s rulers. The first 17 people out of the 109 named used to sit on the Politburo committee. All others were decision-makers in the party and government.

After 96-year-old CP patriarch Jiang Zemin passed away in December, 80-year-old former party leader Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 moved up to first place. It was a hint that Hu leads the senior elite, although at the 20th Party Congress last November, which he attended as a guest of honor, he was escorted out of the hall at the behest of current CP leader Xi Jinping. All of China gossiped about it.

Why Xi vanished

Xi never explained Hu’s removal. What really happened remains another mysterious incident under his rule. Xi’s unstoppable rise since 2012 already began with a mysterious act. He vanished suddenly from Sept. 1, 2012, to Sept. 15. Then he reappeared just as unexpectedly, allowing himself to be filmed walking with senior officials in a university and dominating the CCTV main news that evening.

This would hardly be worth mentioning if Xi had not been the designated party leader shortly before the start of the 18th party congress and had canceled all appointments for his time-out, including with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council or Denmark’s Prime Minister. They were only told informally that Xi had injured himself while swimming.

Years later, a well-connected party functionary gave me a plausible explanation under the condition that I would not quote him: Xi had given the Politburo committee an ultimatum and decided the power struggle in his favor. He would only allow himself to be elected party leader if he also received command of the armed forces. At the 18th Party Congress, party and army chief Hu Jintao handed him both offices. This, my contact said, not only showed Xi’s desire for power, but also the influence he already had within the party.

Disasters are a secret

“We are a superpower of secrets,” the magazine Yidu 壹读 mockingly headlined in April 2014. “Every year, the US produces 100,000 classified documents. In our country, it is millions.” The insolent investigative magazine was discontinued at the end of 2015.

In the past, almost everything was classified anyway. For decades, it was forbidden to report death tolls after floods or earthquakes, and certainly not to talk about the millions of victims of the mega-disasters and famines under Mao’s many campaigns of terror and persecution. Three years passed after the devastating Tangshan earthquake of July 28, 1976, before it was reported in November 1979 that at least 240,000 people had perished. It was not until August 2005 that the censorship on reporting major accidents or disasters came to an end. Now it was allowed to report on disasters that had been kept quiet. For example, in August 1975, the provincial leadership of Henan covered up the rupture of the huge Banqiao dam after rainstorms. It remained a secret for 30 years. In 2005, it was revealed that 85,600 local residents had drowned as a result. And tens of thousands of people died from epidemics in the wake of the floods.

To this day, China’s justice system considers all information about how many death sentences its courts hand down and carry out to be top secret. International legal experts believe that China executes more convicts each year than all other countries in the world combined.

The Panchen Lama was swapped

It is impossible to find public information about what is considered a “government secret” within the party. But this certainly includes all highly sensitive events, such as the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, on which all questions about what really happened and how many Beijingers died are forbidden. After 27 years, the question of what happened to the Tibetan boy Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is also taboo. On May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized him as the reincarnation of the deceased 10th Panchen Lama. On May 17, 1995, China’s authorities kidnapped him, declared the Dalai Lama reincarnation “invalid,” and installed another boy as the “real” one. Since then, there are no traces of the kidnapped boy.

Secrecy is an “essential part of the system and leads to guesswork in public discourse,” says Michael Kahn-Ackermann, sinologist, founder and regional director of the Goethe-Institut China. As an example, he cites the mysterious annual ritual when the top party leadership meets during its summer break in the hermetically guarded celebrity beach resort of Beidaihe to informally discuss important decisions. There are no reports about it, not even about when the leaders are coming or going, or whether they attend in the first place.

The US did not understand the indirect gesture: On October 1, 1970, Mao asked the US journalist Edgar Snow to join him on the tribune of Tiananmen Gate on the occasion of the National Day. His intention was to signal that he wanted to reconcile with the USA.

Occasionally, observers decipher Beijing’s hints of “Chinese characteristics” that something is afoot. The China expertise currently much discussed and called for in Western and German politics should be able to interpret such signals. In his standard work “Diplomacy,” Henry Kissinger, who arranged the meeting between Nixon and Mao in 1972, admits how his China experts failed. For example, they ignored Mao’s “sounding balloon” of using US journalist Edgar Snow to signal his intention to reconcile with the United States. Mao invited Snow to stand beside him on the parapet of Tiananmen Gate on Oct. 1, 1970, to watch the National Day celebrations. Kissinger recalled, “We didn’t even notice Mao’s gesture and thought Snow was a communist tool… We also didn’t pay attention to his interview with Mao in December 1970, in which he invited Nixon to visit China either as a tourist or as the US president.”

Snow’s article on April 30, 1971, published by “Life” went unnoticed by US officials.

In 2001, when I was a journalist in Beijing, I tried to get to the bottom of one of China’s great mysteries. Together with Beijing correspondent Eva Corell, I embarked on a search in Outer Mongolia for the wreckage of Lin Biao’s 1971 plane. He was China’s second most powerful man and Mao’s crown prince. When Lin learned that Mao was suspicious of him and that he could face imprisonment, he had flown his Trident Type 1E to Canton, where he planned to declare a counter-government. When he was targeted by Beijing mid-flight, he turned around and tried to escape to Moscow via Outer Mongolia. On the way, he was forced to make an emergency landing at 2:50 a.m. on Sept. 13. The Trident crashed. All nine passengers burned to death.

So much for Beijing’s statements today.

After a day and a half in the jeep, we stumbled upon the hidden crash site near Berkh. It was located three kilometers from a quartz mining town and 48 kilometers from a military airport. The plane was headed there. That night, a quartz mine operated by Russian experts was said to be lit up. The pilot must have believed the mine to be the airfield he was looking for. When he realized his mistake, he tried to make an emergency landing. Local eyewitnesses reported that the plane was already on fire while in the air.

Mao’s crown prince Lin Biao fled in September 1971 after an alleged coup attempt. Lin crashed over Mongolia on his way to Moscow. A deaf-mute shepherd showed me the way to the plane wreckage.

Mongolian military recovered the large parts and the engines. The dryness of the steppe preserved metal shards and aircraft scrap for 30 years. Our most important source turned out to be a former diplomat from the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was one of the first to arrive in the helicopter at dawn on the day of the crash. They found charred bodies. Some occupants must have survived the crash because there were traces that they had tried to crawl away from the burning wreck.

Pieces from Lin Biao aircraft that crashed over Mongolia. The stones came from a quartz mine that the pilot mistook for a military airfield only 48 kilometers away.

The official, who was stationed in Beijing in 1966, said he did not know who the passengers in military uniform were who had crossed from China, which was an enemy of Mongolia at the time. But he then later found a charred ID card belonging to Lin Biao’s son and a pistol among the recovered papers. He said that shots had been fired on board, because they discovered bullet holees in parts of the cabin wall.

To this day, it is unclear what happened on the plane, especially since the black box is missing. Why did Lin Biao flee, why did he stage a coup? How was Mao involved in his death? Beijing’s archives were only opened during a brief period of reform, then closed again. The party keeps China on course as a superpower of secrets.


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