Zhao’s Version

Andrew Nathan

  • Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang by Zhao Ziyang, translated by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang and Adi Ignatius
    Simon and Schuster, 306 pp, £20.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 1 84737 697 8

In the afternoon of 23 April 1989, China’s highest-ranking official, the Party’s general secretary Zhao Ziyang, left from Beijing railway station for an official visit to North Korea. Zhao had considered cancelling the trip because of the student demonstrations that had broken out in Beijing eight days earlier, but decided it wasn’t necessary. The crisis seemed to have peaked, and he had obtained the other senior leaders’ agreement to a strategy to end the demonstrations peacefully by opening a dialogue. He entrusted that process to the second-ranking leader, Premier Li Peng.

Two days later, while Zhao was in Pyongyang, Li and officials close to him visited the retired senior leader Deng Xiaoping at his home and told him that the student movement had turned into a riot and Deng himself had been attacked by name. Outraged, Deng said this was clearly a ‘well-planned plot’ to ‘reject the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system at the most fundamental level’. The next day, 26 April, these words were included in an editorial in the People’s Daily which demanded that the students disperse. The paradoxical effect was to prolong the demonstrations, since the students now had to fight to show that their movement was ‘patriotic and democratic’ or face punishment for a political crime when they returned to campus. And because Deng’s word was law, once Zhao returned from Pyongyang he could not win his colleagues back to the path of dialogue. When Zhao refused to participate in the declaration of martial law on 20 May, Deng sidelined him. The military crackdown on 4 June left hundreds dead in the streets of Beijing. Three weeks later, at the Fourth Plenum of the 13th Central Committee, Zhao was officially dismissed from office on charges of ‘supporting turmoil and splitting the Party’, and consigned to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 2005.

Zhao first told his side of the story at a Politburo meeting some days before the Fourth Plenum, when he responded to the charges against him with 11 points of self-defence, key among them that the students’ demands had not posed a threat to Party rule and that the crisis could have been settled peacefully if the other leaders had accepted his advice to withdraw the label ‘turmoil’ (i.e. riot) used in the 26 April editorial. He asked to be exonerated a second time in 1997, when he wrote a letter to the 15th Party Congress, arguing again that the crisis could have been settled peacefully had the leaders been willing to conduct a dialogue with the students, and urging the Party to acknowledge that the use of force had been a mistake. Although Deng had recently died, Li Peng was still in power and Jiang Zemin, a beneficiary of June Fourth who had succeeded Zhao as general secretary, was consolidating his power. The only response Zhao received was a tightening of the conditions of his house arrest: his visitors were restricted to immediate relatives, and he was no longer allowed out to play golf.

Zhao aired his version of events a third time in a series of conversations with an old comrade, Zong Fengming, who managed to talk his way past Zhao’s guards. From 1991 onwards, the two had more than a hundred meetings, most of them before the 1997 tightening of Zhao’s house arrest. Unable to record or transcribe their conversations for fear of raising the suspicion of the guards, Zong made notes after returning home, and at Zhao’s request withheld them from publication until after his death. In these conversations Zhao explicitly blamed Li Peng for taking advantage of his absence in Pyongyang to exaggerate the student threat and manipulate the elderly Deng into using words that Li then published to polarise the conflict. He expanded on his view that the students were willing to leave Tiananmen Square, but were held there because they were afraid of repercussions generated by the 26 April editorial. Once again he said that even after his return from Pyongyang, he could have resolved the crisis through dialogue on three separate occasions, had his efforts not been undermined by his rivals.

Zhao’s insistence that he was right was unique in the annals of Communist history, considering his high rank and the gravity of the issues at stake. From the time of Stalin’s show trials onward, the proper stance of an accused Communist official had been recantation. When Mao purged Marshal Peng Dehuai in 1959, Peng launched into self-criticism before he was told what he was supposed to have done wrong. Head of state Liu Shaoqi made no defence when he was attacked by Red Guards in 1967 or later led off to prison and eventual death. Premier Zhou Enlai was adept at abasing himself in response to Mao’s criticisms, sometimes even anticipating them. Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, had little to say for herself when she was put on trial after Mao’s death, except that she had done Mao’s bidding: ‘I was Chairman Mao’s dog, whomever he said to bite I bit.’ When Zhao’s reformist colleague Hu Yaobang was removed from office in 1987, he made a detailed self-critique capped by weeping.

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