Ex-Chinese Leader's Memoir To Be Published

Two decades after his downfall and four years after his death, reformist leader Zhao Ziyang has shattered the official silence cloaking the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in memoirs he recorded in secret under house arrest.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A far more secretive memoir is about to be released in English and Chinese. It's a memoir based on cassette recordings by a former leader of China.

Mr. ZHAO ZIYANG (Former Premier, China): (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: China's former premier, Zhao Ziyang, recorded his memoirs surreptitiously while he was under house arrest. The memoirs are the most authoritative challenge from the within the Communist Party to the official version of what happened 20 years ago at the Tianamen Square Massacre.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: By the time soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in Tianamen Square, killing hundreds, Zhao Ziyang had already been deposed for supporting the demonstrators. He was at home in central Beijing where he would remain under house arrest until his death in 2005. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to most accounts at the time, most of the shootings took place west of Tiananmen Square on Chang'an Avenue, and not in the square itself.]

Mr. ZIYANG: (Through Translator) On the night of June 3rd, I was enjoying the cool in my courtyard when I heard intense gunfire. The tragedy that shocked the world had not been avoided and was happening, after all.

KUHN: Zhao's memoirs were made from these recordings. Zhao's secretary, Bao Tong, orchestrated their publication. Bao himself was jailed for seven years and remains under tight police surveillance. He says he only found out about the tapes in 2007.

Mr. BAO TONG (Former Secretary to Zhao Ziyang): (Through Translator) I know that these cassette tapes were recorded in 2000. Before recording them, Zhao made meticulous and comprehensive preparations. Many facts indicate that he had the text all written out in 1993.

KUHN: Bao says that the 30 hours of cassette tapes were divided up among three of Zhao's confidantes and smuggled out of the country. Simon and Schuster will release the English version next week. The Chinese version can only be published in Hong Kong, not on the mainland.

Bao Tong says that the full audio of the memoir cannot be released. That's because it contains the voices of people who helped Zhao record the memoirs, some of whom are still alive in China.

Mr. TONG: (Through Translator) At the time, there were four ministers in the party's central committee in the Cabinet who supported him in making these recordings. So at first, the memoir was in the form of a question and answer session with Zhao. And this memoir affects these officials' interests.

KUHN: China's government has not yet commented on the memoir. Its standard line is that the pro-democracy movement was a counter-revolutionary rebellion. And that if it had not been quashed, China would not have achieved the stability and prosperity it enjoys today. Zhao directly questions that idea in his memoir and the idea that the pro-democracy protestors were out to overthrow the government. He says that authorities have interrogated plenty of protestors and they should know something about their motives.

Mr. ZIYANG: (Through Translator) I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our mistakes, not attempting to overthrow our political system. After so many years, what evidence has been obtained through the interrogations? Have I been proven right? Or have they?

KUHN: The memoirs offer an insider's view of the pitched battles fought by liberals and conservatives over the direction of China's reforms throughout the 1980s. Those battles culminated in 1989 when then Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping sided with the conservatives who have remained in control to this day.

Bao Tong describes the conflicting lines of thought.

Mr. TONG: (Through Translator) Zhao's way of thinking proceeded from one viewpoint: citizens have the right to express their opinions. This was completely different from Deng Xiaoping's way of thinking, which was that citizens must obey the party's leadership and do as they are told.

KUHN: While in office, Zhao Ziyang advocated gradual reform of China's political system. It was not until Zhao was deposed that he began to argue that a market economy must be accompanied by a parliamentary democracy.

Mr. ZIYANG: (Through Translator) Of course, it is possible that in the future, a political system will emerge that is better and more advanced than parliamentary democracy. But that is a matter for the future. There is none now.

KUHN: Because Zhao lost out in the political melee, any open discussion within China about the merits of his vision will also be deferred into the future.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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Correction May 18, 2009

We said, "By the time soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, Zhao Ziyang had already been deposed for supporting the demonstrators." According to most accounts at the time, most of the shootings took place west of Tiananmen Square on Chang'an Avenue, and not in the square itself.

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