BEIJING — In Washington, it is said, the definition of a gaffe is accidentally saying what you really think.
That may be doubly true in Beijing, as Deng Yuwen can attest.
Deng, an editor at the weekly newspaper run by the Central Party School, the main training institute for future Communist cadres, has taken on controversial topics in the past: deploring corruption and censorship, advocating political reform. But when he published a column calling for China to abandon its alliance with North Korea, he found himself out of a job within 48 hours.
In fact, it is a sentiment shared by many China intellectuals. But to say so publicly is still risky. Although China has new leadership that may be reevaluating its approach to its troublesome neighbor, an unusual amalgam of factors — historical, ideological, strategic and economic — make North Korea something of a sacred cow in Chinese public discourse.
“North Korea is a sensitive subject. It used to be impossible to write anything negative about it,” said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He said the taboo is gradually lifting. “Even the most hard-core leftists are becoming less supportive of North Korea. It is really hard to call them brother when they give you so much trouble.”
But criticism of North Korea is usually couched in qualifiers.
In a speech over the weekend at an international forum, newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping condemned countries that “throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” but he did not specifically mention North Korea.
“The favorable opinion of the Chinese public toward Pyongyang is fading,” the Communist Party-affiliated newspaper Global Times cautiously wrote in an editorial Wednesday. It warned that North Korea’s “latest provocation is further damaging its reputation and exhausting its future ability to use deterrence strategies.”
“It is like discussing a child who is good, but is behaving rottenly,” said John Park of Harvard University’s Belfer Center, describing China’s attitudes toward North Korea.
North Korea owes its continued existence to China, which intervened on its behalf in the 1950-53 Korean War and today supplies it with most of its fuel oil and such consumer products as umbrellas and shampoo.
Although the current Chinese leaders came of age after the war, several of them have close Korean ties.
Li Keqiang, the new premier, cut his teeth as Communist Party secretary in Liaoning province, which hugs the North Korean border. Zhang Dejiang, another of the elite seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, studied economics at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University and speaks fluent Korean.
“The Korean War is part of the Chinese identity. It was really the first time after the Opium War that China stood up and successfully stopped the West,” said John Delury, a Chinese studies professor teaching at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
North Korea remains special to China, as was evident from the rigmarole during three visits by the late leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011. Large swaths of the transportation system in northeastern China were closed off for his private train and the visits kept secret, a deference shown to no other leader. North Korea’s ruling structure mirrors that of China, with the new leader, Kim Jong Un, holding the same positions in the party and military as Xi Jinping does.
The Chinese Communist Party and North Korean Workers’ Party deal directly with each other. Diplomatic relations bypass China’s Foreign Ministry and are handled by a department that reports directly to the Politburo.
In Pyongyang, Chinese Ambassador Liu Hongcai is frequently photographed with the inner circle of the North Korean leadership — last summer on a roller coaster squeezed between Kim Jong Un and his powerful aunt, Kim Kyong Hui.
In the structures of its government and ruling party, North Korea looks like a child of China, albeit one that is stuck in a 1960s time warp, somewhere between “The Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution, two of Mao Tse-tung’s most notable failures.
But some Chinese still admire North Korea’s undiluted brand of communism.
“It is the pure land for some people who feel China’s getting soft,” said Adam Cathcart, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, who writes a blog about Chinese-North Korean relations. “Between China and North Korea, there is a lot of cultural compatibility.... You see the patriotic operas, the waving of the red handkerchiefs.”
Increasingly, the ties are financial. Chinese state-owned enterprises and border provinces, like Jilin, are investing heavily in North Korean mines, ports, transportation and tourism. Thousands of North Korean seamstresses and factory workers have been quietly given permits to work in China. North Korean trading companies, controlled by the military and the ruling Kim family, piggyback on Chinese companies selling commodities across the two countries’ 850-mile border.
In Washington, some argue that China’s response to North Korean provocations has actually become less vigorous over the years, despite more open criticism of Pyongyang.
Michael Green, who was a top Asia advisor to former President George W. Bush, said that while the administration has been encouraged by some steps the Chinese have recently taken, there has also been resistance by Beijing to tougher measures against Pyongyang — for example, within the United Nations body charged with implementing such sanctions.
Green, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there was undeniably a “lot more debate and frustration” in China about Pyongyang. “But will that change their bottom line? It’s not so clear.”
China voted in support of U.N. sanctions against North Korea after Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test in February, and the Chinese state media widely condemned North Korea’s actions. Bilateral trade between the countries was $1.3 billion in the first quarter of the year, down 7.2% from the same period last year, according to data released Wednesday by Chinese customs officials.
The conventional wisdom for many years among Chinese international relations theorists has been that North Korea served as a useful buffer zone and that its collapse could bring U.S.-backed South Korea to China’s doorstep.
The column that got Deng Yuwen into trouble suggested otherwise. “Even if North Korea was a useful friend during the Cold War, its usefulness today is doubtful,” he wrote. “Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean peninsula.”
The column was published in Britain’s Financial Times in late February after being rejected by several Chinese publications.
“I thought it would have an impact, but I didn’t think it would bring me that much trouble,” said the 45-year-old Deng, who declined to comment further, saying he was still in negotiations with his former employer, a weekly called Study Times.
Deng’s firing, which was first reported April 1 by the South Korean press, has prompted widespread commentary by Chinese critical of North Korea. Several prominent North Korea experts have called as well for abandoning the Pyongyang alliance, but, like Deng, writing only in overseas publications. The Communist Party may have been more sensitive to Deng’s commentary because Study Times is published by the Central Party School.
“China provides North Korea with presumably large amounts of aid as well as diplomatic cover at the United Nations. And what thanks does China get in return? Lies, insults and provocations,” wrote Shen Dingli of Shanghai’s Fudan University. “Let’s face it: China has reached a point where it needs to cut its losses and cut North Korea loose.”
Shen said the article did not cause him any problems because he criticized the United States as well as North Korea.
“I struck a careful balance in my article,” he said. “There was no trouble at all.”
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.