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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, May 2009, 978 1 84737 697 8
Show More
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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.

The leaders at the Politburo meeting in 1989 were shocked when Zhao insisted on responding to the two days of attacks on him with a 20-minute speech. They expected him to be grateful that he wasn’t being expelled from the Party and for the relatively comfortable punishment of house arrest. In later years when he protested that his treatment violated the state and Party constitutions, they let him know that he ought to behave more like the first post-Mao Party leader, Hua Guofeng, who was much more careful after his purge. But Zhao preferred to practise what the pro-reform journalist Liu Binyan once called ‘the second kind of loyalty’, pointing out the Party’s faults rather than bowing to them.

Some time around 2000, Zhao began his fourth, final and most thorough attempt to explain why the tragic outcome of the 1989 events was not his fault. Eluding his guards, he recorded a series of more than 30 audio tapes over recordings of children’s music and Peking opera (his young grandson and the child’s parents shared the house with Zhao and his wife). He passed the tapes in separate batches to trusted friends, and hid a back-up set among his grandson’s toys. By this time, his 1997 attempt at rehabilitation had failed. His enemies’ power was growing: their remarkable strategy – they’d decided not merely to spin the historical interpretation of June Fourth but to eliminate the event from the minds of the Chinese people – seemed to be succeeding. Zhao’s conversations with Zong Fengming had been scattered and uncertain, and seemed unlikely to continue under the new restrictions. His close aide Bao Tong (whose son Bao Pu is the publisher of the Chinese text of the tapes and cotranslator of the English version) had been released from prison in 1997. Bao Pu told me that the two had hoped to write something together but the authorities would not allow them to meet. Zhao was denied access even to publicly available records of past events. The Tiananmen Papers, which I coedited, had not yet been published, and although I have never revealed the source of these papers, I can say that Zhao had no cause to know they were about to come out. Whatever the reasons, Zhao apparently decided that he should create as cogent as possible an account of the crisis while he still could.

The tapes’ authenticity is beyond doubt. Zhao’s voice is well known. The contents are detailed and accurate (the section on the events of Tiananmen tracks perfectly with The Tiananmen Papers). The chain of transmission from the original possessors to Bao Pu is clear enough, even though some details are understandably omitted both in Adi Ignatius’s preface to the English edition and in Du Daozheng’s preface to the Chinese edition. Zhao could not have anticipated the transcripts’ dramatic publication on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, and some of his former aides who were involved in the transmission of the tapes protested against what they saw as the politicised timing and framing of the release. But that may have been no more than a pro forma denial of intent to harm the Party.

Whatever Zhao’s sense of how the tapes would be used, he clearly intended them to become known after his death and to influence China’s understanding of its history and, through that, its vision of its future. Above all he believed that China’s political system would be better off had he been allowed to handle the situation in 1989 as he wished. Looking back, he asks: was there really a conspiracy? Did the students want to overthrow the Party? Was there a counter-revolutionary riot? Zhao is convincing when he says that all the evidence suggests not, and that the tragedy was the fault of his rivals. His, he claims, was the legitimate voice of the Party centre because of his role as general secretary and his continuous consultation with other senior colleagues. His opponents blocked, delayed and sabotaged his efforts: they preferred bloodshed.

Zhao reaches back to 1980, when he was appointed premier, to show that the leadership split of 1989 was rooted in the history of the Deng reforms. (Hence the subtitle of the book, more than half of which is devoted to Zhao’s service as premier from 1980 to 1987.) As Deng opened the economy to foreign trade and investment and put the profit motive at the centre of economic activ-ity, fissures opened in the leadership, with some members fearing that China was sacrificing its revolutionary ideals and national independence. Deng’s chief antagonist was Chen Yun, a senior economic planner under Mao. Although Zhao, as premier, had nominal responsibility for the economy, China was in transition from the personalised dictatorship of Mao to the more institutionalised decision-making system of today. Policy was made in a complex, largely informal process dominated by Deng, Chen and several other elders, with Zhao and Party Secretary Hu Yaobang acting as mediators and implementers.

There has been some reaction against the book in the Chinese blogosphere based on the misperception that Zhao claims to have been the leader of the reforms and denigrates Deng’s role. This may have arisen from a line in Roderick MacFarquhar’s foreword, in which he says it was Zhao ‘rather than Deng who was the actual architect of reform’. But MacFarquhar is speaking for himself, not for Zhao, and in any case what he means is only that Zhao and his colleagues developed the concrete policies to implement Deng’s vision.

Zhao’s point is the opposite: what happened in 1989 was the consequence of Deng’s decisions. The search for prosperity gave rise to clashing interests and ideas in a changing society. Social life had to be liberalised, ideological discipline relaxed. Deng allowed Zhao to manage these problems by muddling through, and Zhao claims he could have managed them the same way in 1989 had Deng allowed him to do so. All along, the conservatives viewed Zhao as ideologically soft and lacking in vigilance. They saw Hu Yaobang the same way, and managed to get him dropped from the leadership in 1987. But at that moment Deng stood by Zhao and promoted him to Hu’s vacant post. It was only under the pressure of events in 1989 that Deng threw Zhao overboard, with the support of the same elders who had always doubted him.

Deng was convinced that the regime could survive only by giving its people prosperity. But wanting to enjoy his retirement, he was trying to extricate himself from a day by day policy-making role; he was anxious to avoid personal confrontation, and impatient with the details of economics and ideology. He was liable to make hasty decisions depending on who had spoken to him last, and tended to manage his political relationships through his closest aide, Yang Shangkun (who doubled as head of state), and his children. As a result, throughout the 1980s China oscillated between fast growth and credit tightening; ideological liberalisation was followed by ideological repression; and there were intermittent purges inside the Party. (In the course of these purges the leaders routinely ignored both Party procedural rules and the civil rights granted by China’s newly emerging legal system, which makes Zhao’s outrage when his own rights are trampled during his purge and house arrest somewhat incongruous.)

These systemic weaknesses came to a head in 1989. A sense of drift was created by an abortive ideological campaign against ‘bourgeois liberalisation’, clumsy expulsions of popular Party intellectuals, indecision about price reform, and a surge of inflation. Then came Hu Yaobang’s death from a heart attack on 15 April 1989. Both conservatives and liberals felt their worst fears had been vindicated – one side believed that ideological laxity had come home to roost and the other that too much repression was taking its toll – and that their way of solving the crisis was right. Deng was suddenly more indispensable than ever but also harder to get to see and more indecisive. Li Peng shrewdly played on the ageing Deng’s sensitivity about his historical legacy when he told him on 25 April that some of the student demonstrators were calling for his downfall. Even so, the Deng household was outraged when Li – in their view – hung responsibility for the hard line on Deng by using his words to brief the Party apparatus and publishing them in the People’s Daily. A few weeks later Deng and his family took even greater offence when Zhao effectively told the visiting Gorbachev, then still the Soviet general secretary, that Deng remained China’s chief decision-maker. Zhao devotes a whole tape to defending himself against the charge that he was trying to shirk the blame for the worsening crisis by pointing the finger at Deng. Plausibly, he claims he was only making it plain to Gorbachev that Deng’s behind-the-scenes role was legitimate and that Gorbachev’s meeting with Deng would spell the formal end to the two countries’ estrangement.

Throughout the crisis and during his long house arrest, Zhao remained convinced that the one-party system not only could survive, but in the long term could only survive, by opening dialogue with the increasingly complex, self-confident civil society that the market reforms were creating. To describe this dialogue Zhao used the word ‘democracy’. But what did he mean? The word has a long, varied history in Chinese Communist discourse: Mao loved to wield it, and it is favoured by the current repressive leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Did Zhao, as a senior Communist official at the end of his life, abandon the principle of one-party rule? Or did he continue to think, as he had during Tiananmen, that democracy was something that could preserve the system? It is difficult to say. As Zhao points out, Deng himself had started the calls for ‘political system reform’ with a speech in 1980 to which Zhao says he did not pay much attention at the time because its subject matter was outside his bailiwick as chief manager of the economy. At the same time he accurately points out that even though Deng’s wording in this speech ‘could easily have caused people to believe that Deng was prepared … to change the fundamentals of the political system’, this was not so: his reform was intended to be ‘administrative in nature’. In 1987, Deng had ordered Zhao in his new role as general secretary to prepare political reform proposals for the upcoming 13th Party Congress, but limited his mandate with a clear prohibition against ‘a multiparty system, tripartite separation of powers, and the parliamentary system of Western nations’. The proposals Zhao produced were accordingly modest.

Meanwhile, Zhao says, his own thinking in the years just before Tiananmen evolved towards the view that the Party would have to govern in new ways to stay in power as society grew more complex. As he puts it, ‘the Party’s ruling status need not be changed, but the way it governed had to be changed.’ In his last tape, he listed six reforms that he had come to believe even before Tiananmen would make one-party rule acceptable to the people, and therefore stable. First, citing Gorbachev’s idea of glasnost, Zhao believed that Party and state decision-making should become more transparent. Second, the Party should permit independent social groups to exist and acknowledge them as legitimate partners in dialogue. Third, the Party should allow multiple-candidate rather than single-candidate elections. Fourth, under the principle of ‘separating Party and state’, Party officials should refrain from interfering in decision-making by government organs and other administrative bodies. Fifth, citizens’ political rights which existed on paper should be protected in practice, and the small puppet ‘democratic parties’ should be given a fuller consultative role in shaping policy. Sixth, the press should have more freedom, while remaining under the guidance of the Party.

These six points make clear how far Zhao had deviated, even before Tiananmen, from the conservative mainstream of the Party leadership, including his patron Deng. How could one-party rule survive if it allowed the existence of truly independent trade unions, student and other interest groups that would challenge it at every turn? Zhao could see things as he did only because he made tacit assumptions which, although not stated explicitly in the memoirs, were revealed by his statements and actions during the 1989 crisis: that the Party and any interest group that might gain wide support were united in their basic vision of a common weal for China, that dialogue would produce consensus, and that the people would grant their support to the Party if the Party earned it.

These assumptions must seem naive to Western readers who live in practising democracies, where the struggle for power is relentless and seems to be an end in itself. They certainly seemed naive to the conservatives, though for a different reason: they saw the Party as under assault by determined antagonists at home and abroad. Perhaps surprisingly, Zhao acknowledges (both here and in his conversations with Zong Fengming) that he did not know much about politics. As he told Zong,

before 1987 I didn’t concern myself with [political democracy] much. First, I was working on economic reform; second, I was very busy with the work of the State Council and had no time to think about it; also, I did not understand ideological issues well; and finally there were other people handling that area. After I became general secretary in 1987 I started to explore it. My general view was that the Party interfered too much in government departments and mass organisations … Likewise the Party interfered in various aspects of individuals’ lives including private life. This was not good.

Zhao’s views developed further after 1989. He came to believe that ‘the Western parliamentary democratic system … has demonstrated the most vitality. This system is currently the best one available. It is able to manifest the spirit of democracy and meet the demands of a modern society, and it is a relatively mature system … If a country wants to modernise, to realise a modern market economy, it must practise parliamentary democracy as its political system.’ In other words, something called parliamentary democracy is modern and stable.

But did Zhao’s post-1989 idea of parliamentary democracy mean an end to one-party rule, as one would think based on Western models? Probably not. He goes on to say: ‘In China, for the sake of a smoother transition, at least for a while, we should maintain the ruling position of the Communist Party – while changing how the Party rules … If we take the initiative and do this well, the ruling position of the Communist Party could be maintained for a very long time.’ His idea of parliamentary democracy may have been shaped by what was happening at that time in Taiwan, where open elections to the legislature were still producing majorities for the same party that had ruled before the transition to democracy; Singapore, where elections and rule of law coexist with one-party rule; and even Japan, where the LDP had continued its dominance despite a system of open elections. Zhao’s visions of democracy before and after Tiananmen were not very different.

Having spent a career as a practising politician, not a political theorist, Zhao would no doubt have thought it otiose to propose a specific blueprint for the future. In a passage inadvertently omitted from the English edition he says:

This transition will take a long time and depend on the development of various parts of the whole society. The key is for the CCP leading group to have this kind of idea, this kind of creed, and then to lead things along according to circumstances, increasing or decreasing the emphasis and going fast or slow depending on what opportunity permits and bringing the project to fruition gradually. Nor can the process depend solely on the self-awareness of the ruling party, but must also be promoted by various parts of society and public opinion.

By contrast Li Peng believed – as he said during the crisis – that allowing independent social forces like the demonstrating students to ‘negotiate with the Party and government as equals’ would ‘negate the leadership of the CCP and negate the entire socialist system’. To undertake reform ‘when conflicts in society are severe and the Party is crippled … makes control of the process nearly impossible’. (It is said that Li has written a memoir but has been denied permission to publish it.) To judge from subsequent events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he may have been right. The lesson has been learned by other authoritarian regimes that studied Tiananmen, from Yangon to Tehran. In meeting challenges from civil society, hard repression works if it is carried out with resolve.

Zhao’s fall ended the long-festering crisis of leadership in China, yet Deng, in undertaking his 1992 ‘journey to the south’ to force the post-Tiananmen leadership to resume economic reform, vindicated the economic policies for which Zhao had been criticised and gave new impetus to the processes of social change that created the crisis between Party and society in the first place. At the same time the crackdown calmed conservatives’ fears that economic reform would undermine the regime, thus making it possible for the new leaders to act on Deng’s prodding, and after his death to pursue further reforms, breaking with the immobilism that had hobbled the process before 1989. This was the train of events which, in the wake of Tiananmen, established the combination of political repression and economic liberalisation now known as the ‘Beijing consensus’ and provided the basis for China’s dramatic rise in the 1990s. Zhao’s agenda – how to find a modern, stable form of relationship between the ruling party and society – remains unaddressed. Had Deng stuck to his initial decision to support Zhao in 1989, the regime today would be managing its social conflicts not with repression but with dialogue.

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