BEIJING -- Two new books that penetrate the secrecy surrounding China's senior leaders are generating whispers and chatter across the country, but in a twist that offers insight into the Communist Party's efforts to shape public opinion, propaganda officials have banned only one of them and are aggressively promoting the other.
The contrast is particularly striking because the banned work was written by one of the party's own, a veteran journalist employed for 35 years by the official New China News Agency, while the author of the favored book, a biography of former President Jiang Zemin, is an American investment banker.
In Shanghai, a man reads a Chinese version of a new biography of Jiang Zemin. The Communist Party has hailed the book, written by a U.S. banker.
(Claro Cortes Iv -- Reuters)
The different responses highlight the party's struggle to control its image, and the increasingly sophisticated tactics it uses to pursue that goal in a society with growing access to news and information. They also suggest that the party believes its ability to define its history remains critical to preserving its grip on power.
In many ways, the books present competing versions of recent history. The biography, "The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin," by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, argues that the party has brought unprecedented stability, prosperity, global prestige and personal freedom to the Chinese people in the years since Mao Zedong died in 1976.
The other book, an account of political battles within the leadership over the same period, challenges that view, focusing instead on rampant corruption, rising social unrest and other problems caused by the party's refusal to adopt democratic reforms even as it embraced capitalist-style economic policies.
The book, "Political Struggles in China's Reform Era," by Yang Jisheng, is also an attempt to redefine the legacy of Zhao Ziyang, the party chief purged for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It features three interviews conducted secretly with Zhao during the 1990s while he was under house arrest.
The party has sought to minimize Zhao's role in China's economic rise and maintains that his opposition to the Tiananmen crackdown was a "serious mistake." Some outside scholars have also argued that Zhao was an authoritarian leader who backed the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 only in a bid to seize power.
But a series of books by former aides in recent years, some relying on internal documents smuggled out of the country, have chipped away at both pictures of Zhao, and he is now seen by many as an advocate of gradual democratic reform who said in the late 1980s that he hoped provincial-level elections could be held within a decade.
In Yang's book, published just weeks before Zhao's death in January, the deposed party leader presents his views in his own words, criticizing current leaders for banning even discussion about political reform and once again rejecting the party's justification of the Tiananmen massacre.
"There was an argument that the suppression was the last resort, as there was no alternative. This argument is wrong," Zhao says. "We had many chances that would have made a non-bloodshed approach possible."
The government has barred the publication or sale of Yang's book on the mainland, but since November, when it was printed in Hong Kong, thousands of copies have been carried across the border. Booksellers in Hong Kong say almost all the copies they've sold have been bought by visitors from the mainland, and Yang said his publisher had sold at least 20,000 copies. The writer declined to comment further, saying he had been warned by authorities not to speak to reporters.
By contrast, Kuhn's biography of Jiang, who succeeded Zhao in 1989, is prominently displayed in bookstores across the country. The state-owned Shanghai Century Publishing Group says it printed a million copies and has sold 600,000 of them since the book was launched in February, making it a national bestseller.
Traveling the country on a book tour, Kuhn, a managing director at Smith Barney Citigroup and an unpaid economic adviser to Chinese officials, has been greeted by lines of autograph seekers and entertained by high-level party officials. State-run news organizations have lavished his book with positive coverage, though some national newspapers have refrained from reporting on it.
The warm official embrace of Kuhn's book is unusual even by the standards of the party's propaganda apparatus, which since the death of Mao has generally prohibited the publication of biographies of top leaders while they're alive. The exception made for Jiang has led some political observers in Beijing to suggest the book is an attempt by the former president to retain influence in retirement.