Zhao Ziyang, former Chairman of the Communist Party in China, was politically sidelined in May 1989 and went into house arrest as a result of his opposition to the government response to students occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This fascinating personal and secret memoir recorded in the years after his arrest was published only after Zhao’s death in 2005. Bao Pu, son of Zhao’s trusted advisor, secretary, and speech writer, Bao Tong, transcribed, translated, and published the documents in his own publishing house in Hong Kong in 2009. Simon & Schuster published a U.S. edition with a Foreword by Roderick MacFarquhar, noted China scholar.
In that Foreword, MacFarquhar notes that Zhao was an economic reformer but a political conservative in the 1980’s, but during his house arrest he became increasingly convinced that political change was both necessary and advantageous, i.e., economic development must be accompanied by development of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. MacFarquhar asks readers to consider that it took some years of house arrest for Zhao to come to these conclusions and wonders how much more difficult it would be for those involved in the day-to-day management of state and skirmishes within the Politburo to come to similar conclusions.
Though Zhao Ziyang has been erased from public discourse in China today, he did have some notion that the demands of the students in Tiananmen were not essentially undermining the state, but all about modifying the state to better represent the will of the people. Reading the full narrative makes clear that Zhao’s position as Party Chairman in the spring of 1989 was already tenuous. He still had Deng’s support, but that was all. After his refusal to carry out Deng’s wishes in handling the student demonstration, his political career was finished.
Hu Yaobang, in the chapter about his ouster, sounds politically tone deaf. When faced with conflict Hu ignored it or went out of the country. Hu was Party Chairman when Zhao was Premier. Hu was forced to resign in January 1987, and Zhao was asked to take his place, though he’d made clear that he did not want the role of Communist Party Chairman. He would have preferred to stay focused on economic issues as Premier.
Zhao speculates that Hu was forced out because he suggested in interviews and by “loose talk” that Deng Xiaoping would (should) retire from making decisions. Zhao did the exact opposite with Gorbachev in 1989, suggesting that Deng was really in control of everything, and that Gorbachev, if he wanted the “final word” on anything, should meet with Deng. A little later we understand the reasons for this more fully.
Corporate types who have lived/worked with a group of people who disagree but who never openly voice their disagreements and instead jockey for position by leaks or by willfully excluding someone from discussions will recognize immediately the stomach-churning turmoil of the 1980’s government of the most populous country on earth. Each individual was a planetary power shifting his weight, yet no one was precisely sure what the actual sticking points were since no one voiced their opposition openly.
It appears that the shift of Zhao to position of General Secretary of the Party from Premier in 1987 was the beginning of his downfall. Though Deng Xiaoping created a Central Economic and Financial Leading Group with the intention that Zhao would keep his hold over the management of the economy while at the same time handling Party affairs, Zhao was sidelined and attacked by more conservative ideologues Li Xiannian, Wang Zhen, Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun.
The real writing on Zhao’s headstone was Zhao’s failure to push through price reforms in the fall of 1988. He’d made preparation, proposed and supported the idea, but when it came to implementation he choked. Zhao’s chapter on official corruption gives a clear explanation of how vast sums can be channeled and manipulated through government enterprises unless there is price reform. Deng Xiaoping had made clear that he wanted this work done because all the economic reform efforts in the world couldn’t work properly without price reform. Deng said repeatedly that Zhao should be strong and if it all went sideways, that Deng would take the blame. But Zhao couldn’t pull the trigger, and the conservatives then had the ammunition they needed to refuse his recommendations as bank runs, inflation, and lack of available money from the center slowed the economy. Reforms were retrenched.
Zhao later said that this was the thing he most regretted. Indeed, we learn something about the nature of leadership with his failure in this instance: a leader doesn’t necessarily have to be fearless, but he must be bold. A leader may be afraid, but he sometimes must make a bold move despite that fear (think Shackleton). I think Deng understood this. Deng himself was vulnerable to ultraconservatives who sought to sideline his influence, and he tried to preempt their attempts by resigning from all posts and suggesting other elderly statesmen do the same.
What happens next is just the burying of the body. By 1989 Zhao must have known his position was extremely tenuous, and therefore convinced Deng not to resign his posts, knowing he would lose his powerful mentor and his one friend in the upper reaches of power. Zhao finally split with Deng over the student demonstrations, which Deng felt should be dealt with harshly, by forcing the students from the Square. If Western observers thought the political center in China was in turmoil during Tiananmen, they had missed the fact that power was being consolidated, in fact. Deng stepped down from his position as Chairman of Central Military Commission in 1989, despite promising Zhao that he would wait a year. Deng was still consulted on official matters until 1992.
Zhao never was released from house arrest, and very rarely left his home. He died in 2005. His memoir of his final years was discovered at his home in plain sight, recorded over his grandchildren’s music tapes and tapes of Chinese opera.
This memoir was both heartbreaking and heart stirring. It has the feel of truth—Zhao Ziyang’s truth—which is all we ask of a memoirist. Bao Pu did a great job condensing the material, providing explanatory text, and making a worthwhile testament to Zhao Ziyang’s life.
Postscript: I read this because I recently read Louisa Lim's fine report on China today, which I reviewed earlier: The People's Republic of Amnesia. Oxford University Press, 6/4/2014, ISBN 978-0199347704.
You can buy this book here: