Finally, I was able to sit down with Deng Yuwen. Deng was deputy editor of the Study Times under the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, which is its official name, also known as the "Central Party School" (zhongyang dangxiao). This is the institution where promising mid-career Communist Party officials are trained, usually before they are promoted. The significance of the publication can be gleaned by the prominence of its oversized signboard at the entrance of the institution.
Deng is among the key figures that shaped the worldwide public narrative of Sino-North Korea relations.
On Feb. 27, 2013, he penned an op-ed piece published in the Financial Times, titled "China should abandon North Korea." Given his post with the Communist Party's authoritative organization, many outside purveyors judged that his view must have been a reflection of the internal pronouncement of the Chinese Communist Party leadership's emerging new policy on North Korea. Otherwise, the logic went, Deng would not have dared to write such an unorthodox piece, with such a provocative title, in such a major Western newspaper. Doing so would have risked his career.
Some further speculated that the Chinese foreign ministry was in "pre-consultation" with Deng. In other words, the Chinese government was using him as a "messenger" to signal to the world that China would decouple its problematic ideological ally from the Cold War era.
Deng's piece became an instant international headline.
However, this author's two-hour lunch with Deng in Beijing, after his publication, revealed that the episode was entirely his personal initiative. He was not "on a mission." The foreign ministry didn't consult him. In fact, the foreign ministry also found out about his article the same time as everyone else ― after it was published.
According to Deng, the Chinese foreign ministry subsequently lodged an angry complaint to his employer. Soon afterwards, he was fired.
While the fact that his column drew worldwide attention and his article made a huge impact on shaping the perception of the Chinese policy shift on North Korea, the very fact that he was dismissed and fired from his post at the Communist Party organization received relatively little media coverage and a considerable number of the public were not aware of it. This resulted in a significant "information asymmetry" in the way the outside world still understands the matter.
A key question that arises was why he bothered to write the piece, which cost his career?
Surprisingly, his motivation appeared to be more personally based ― partly polemic and partly opportunistic. And it may have more to do with his mistake in misjudging China's censorship line. Deng was savvy about it and, in fact, his job involved reviewing the political correctness of the material to be published in the Communist Party publication. Apparently, this time, he failed the test.
"In today's China, you have more freedom to voice your views and that's fine as long as it doesn't directly challenge the legitimacy of the Communist Party rule. I thought I knew where the boundary was," Deng told me.
Deng speculated that his article backfired because it was published at a particularly sensitive time when China's ties with North Korea became the focus of the world's attention, and he earned the ire of the Chinese government.
It was also established during my conversation with Deng that he had previously sent out the article to several Chinese media outlets first. All of them rejected it – a clear indication that his article stood outside the Chinese Communist Party's thinking.
Looking back on Deng's case, a Chinese scholar said he knew Deng's act would amount to political suicide in China: "Deng argued that we should abandon North Korea. But it was him who was abandoned."
An important detail of Deng's case is that Deng himself didn't believe China would actually abandon North Korea, even though he wrote so. He told me that the Chinese government would not change its policy on North Korea even though a growing number of Chinese citizens were publicly expressing their anger towards North Korea and their frustrations on the Chinese government's policy, including using the increasingly vocal social media platforms.
"The [Communist Party] leadership believes the public is not thinking clearly from the national interest's perspective," Deng said, indicating that the Chinese leadership still regards North Korea as a geopolitical asset. In a country where leaders are not directly elected by public votes, the government can still sustain its old policy, despite some public discontent – at least so far. Deng's remark thus explains why there is the gap between Chinese public's negative perception on North Korea and the Chinese government's actual policy. Even though some liberal Chinese intellectuals and scholars have voiced their personal views on North Korea, traditional thinking and conservative mindset at the Chinese leadership in support of China-North Korea ties still dominate China's policy on North Korea.
Lee Seong-hyon is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.