It was an exhilarating moment for China and the world. In late 1987, at the end of a spirited Communist Party Congress that seemed to propel China on a more progressive course, a new team of leaders emerged, led by a preternaturally tranquil man named Zhao Ziyang.
Zhao wasn't an unknown: after an impressive career in the provinces guiding the first, baby steps of China's recovery from Mao Zedong's lethally unsuccessful economic experiments, Zhao had been summoned to Beijing in 1980 and was soon named Premier, responsible for the economy.
Yet now he was being elevated to the most senior position in China's leadership: General Secretary of the Party. Since he was only sixty-eight years old — a mere child among China's leaders — he had to deal with an older generation of Party veterans who lacked official titles but nonetheless wielded ultimate authority. But the supreme leader of those octogenarians, Deng Xiaoping, had given Zhao the keys to the republic. It was his time to shine.
Zhao was unlike any previous Chinese leader. When the new inner core, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, appeared at the end of that Congress in 1987 for an unprecedented face-to-face with the international press corps at the Great Hall of the People, Zhao beamed with a relaxed confidence. He seemed to signal that China was ready to join the world, that it had begun a process of transforming not just its economy but also its tightfisted politics.
For the first time in memory, the entire Standing Committee appeared in Western attire, their Mao suits stashed away for this photo op aimed at telling the developed West that China was comfortable on stage. When a reporter commented on Zhao's impressive double-breasted pinstripe suit, Zhao, with a big grin, playfully pulled open the jacket to show off a lapel that indicated: made in China. A new era seemed to be at hand.
Over the next two years, however, things would spin out of control, for China and for Zhao. Missteps on the economy led to a rampant inflation that unnerved China's citizens and opened the door for China's more cautious leaders to seize authority and reimpose central controls.
And then, in April 1989, the Tiananmen protests erupted. By the time they were suppressed, less than two months later, Zhao was out of power and under house arrest in his home on a quiet alley in Beijing. China's most promising change agent had been disgraced, along with the policies he stood for.
Zhao spent the last sixteen years of his life, up until his death in 2005, in seclusion. An occasional detail about his life would slip out: reports of a golf excursion, a photo of his aging visage, a leaked letter to China's leaders. But China scholars often lamented that Zhao never had his final say, that he didn't leave his take on what really happened behind the scenes during the tumultuous years that he was in Beijing and, in particular, in 1989 during the Tiananmen protests, when he stood up to China's conservative forces and lost.
The fact is, Zhao did produce such a memoir, in complete secrecy. This book is the first time it is being made public.
Zhao, it turns out, methodically recorded his thoughts and recollections on some of modern China's most critical moments. He talked of the Tiananmen crackdown, of his clashes behind the scenes with his powerful rivals, of the often petty bickering that lay behind policy making, of how China had to evolve politically to achieve long-term stability.
Somehow, under the nose of his captors, Zhao found a way to record about thirty tapes, each about sixty minutes long. Judging from their contents, they were made around the year 2000. Members of his family say they knew nothing about the project. Zhao produced these audio journals mostly by recording over some low-quality cassette tapes that were lying around the house: kids' music and Peking Opera. He indicated their order by numbering them with faint pencil markings. There were no titles or other notes. The first few recordings, covering Tiananmen and other topics he was eager to address — like allegations that Zhao had backstabbed his predecessor, Hu Yaobang, when Hu had been forced out of power in 1987 — seem to have been made in discussion with friends. Their voices are heard on the tapes but have been edited out to protect them and their families' security.
When Zhao finished the recordings after about two years, he found a way to pass tapes to several trusted friends. Each was given only a portion of the total recordings, clearly an attempt to hedge the risk that the tapes might be lost or confiscated. When Zhao died in 2005, some of the people who knew of the recordings launched a complex, clandestine effort to gather the materials in one place and then transcribe them for publication. Later, another set of the tapes, perhaps the originals, was found, hidden in plain view among the grandchildren's toys in Zhao's study. The audio recordings themselves have been returned to Zhao's family, who will decide how they should be preserved. Clips of the recordings will be released to the public upon the release of this book.
Prisoner of the State is a nearly complete presentation of Zhao's recorded journal. The book does not follow Zhao's precise sequence. Some chunks were rearranged and others trimmed to eliminate repetition and for greater readability. For instance, we open with sections that deal with the Tiananmen protests and crackdown of 1989 and with Zhao's many years under house arrest. We begin each chapter with brief editors' notes, in italics, to help set the stage for readers who aren't familiar with what was happening in China at the time. We also have inserted material throughout the book in brackets and footnotes to provide added clarity. Wherever these appear, these are our words, not Zhao's.
Although Zhao gave no instructions as to how or when the materials might be published or otherwise used, he clearly wanted his story to survive. Here's what he says at the start of Part 1, which covers the events leading up to the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989: "I jotted down some notes about the events surrounding the June Fourth incident because I was worried that I might start forgetting some of the specifics. I hoped that it might serve as a kind of historical record."
What is the significance of this journal? Above all, it is the first time that a leader of Zhao's stature in China has spoken frankly about life at the top. He provides an intimate look at one of the world's most opaque regimes. We learn about the triumphs and failures, the boasts and insecurities, of the man who tried to bring liberal change to China, and who made every effort to stop the Tiananmen Massacre. This is Zhao's version of history, and he perhaps was making his arguments for a future generation of leaders who may revisit his case and decide whether he should be rehabilitated in the memory of the Party, and of the nation.
The power structure that Zhao describes is chaotic, often bumbling. Competing factions rush to win over paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, whose nods of assent or rejection resonate through society as if handed down from an oracle. In this narrative, Deng is a conflicted figure who urges Zhao to move quickly with economic reforms but consistently fights back against anything that seems to challenge the Party's supremacy. He is at times portrayed not as the authority, but as a puppet, subject to manipulation by Zhao or his rivals, depending on who presents his case first. Zhao reflects on comments he made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that upset Deng. His assumption, based on years in the inner circle, is that Deng could not have had such a reaction simply on his own: "I have yet to learn who it was or how that person managed to provoke Deng."
The China that Zhao portrays is not some long-lost dynasty. It is today's China, where the nation's leaders accept economic freedom but continue to intimidate and arrest anyone who tries to speak openly about political change. Although the central figures of Zhao's narrative have mostly passed from the scene, the system itself and its habits have not evolved. At the end of 2008, more than three hundred Chinese activists, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, jointly signed Charter 08, a document that called on the Party to reform its political system and allow freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. Beijing responded as it always has: by interrogating many of the signatories and arresting some, including prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo.
China is still a nation where the Party's obsession with self-perpetuation drives its public behavior, and where patriotic voices that don't narrowly conform are silenced. That has consequences far beyond the political sphere. In 2003, when the deadly SARs virus began to spread in China, officials initially resorted to form by trying to control the news and cover up the extent of the problem. That lack of candor may have exposed many thousands more to possible infection.
This journal isn't comprehensive. It doesn't deal with Zhao's long and productive career, only the tumultuous three years before he fell from power. Yet his impressive achievements and the reputation he developed are worth remembering.
Zhao's rise to power traces to his success running economic policy in the provinces. Though born in Henan Province, he built his career in Guangdong, where he became Party chief in 1965 at the remarkably tender age of forty-six. Like countless other officials, he was purged during the Cultural Revolution; he was assigned the relatively menial task of being a fitter at the Xiangzhong Mechanics Factory in Hunan Province. Zhao Wujun, the youngest of his four sons (there is also one daughter), worked with him. The family lived in a small apartment nearby with a suitcase in the middle of the living room that served as the dinner table.
Zhao's return from exile shows the high regard Beijing's leaders had for him. As Zhao once described it to friends, in April 1971 the Zhao family was suddenly roused in the middle of the night by a banging at the door. Without explanation, the factory's Party chief informed Zhao that he was to go at once to Changsha, the provincial capital. The factory's only means of transport was a three-wheeled motorcycle, which was quickly readied to take him.
Zhao was driven to Changsha's airport, where a plane had been prepared to fly him to Beijing. Still unaware of what was happening, he boarded the plane; it landed in Beijing, and he was driven to the well-appointed Beijing Hotel. Zhao said he didn't sleep all night; after his years in the political wilderness, the mattress was too soft.
In the morning, he was taken for a meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People. When they met, Zhao began a speech he had been preparing all night: "I have been rethinking the Cultural Revolution during these years as a laborer — " Zhou cut him off and told him, "You've been called to Beijing because the Central Committee has decided to name you as a deputy Party chief of Inner Mongolia."
Zhao later learned that Chairman Mao himself had been responsible for his return from political exile. Mao one day had suddenly asked an attendant, Whatever happened to Zhao Ziyang? When he was told that Zhao had been purged and sent to the countryside as a laborer, Mao expressed his displeasure with the excesses of the purification effort he had launched with the Cultural Revolution: "Purging every single person? That's not what I want..." With that, Zhao Ziyang was rehabilitated.
Zhao held top jobs in several provinces and won widespread praise for finding solutions to the economic paralysis left over from Mao's collectivization. He became the Party leader in Sichuan Province in 1975 and launched ambitious changes in the countryside that increased agricultural output and farmers' wealth. His success prompted locals to say "yao chi liang, zhao Ziyang," a wordplay on his name that translates roughly as "If you want to eat, look for Ziyang."
Unlike many other high-ranking officials, Zhao had a reputation for pragmatism, for taking care of business. He couldn't stand having people do things for him. Before he was purged for the final time in 1989, there was an evening when he was having trouble sleeping. The Party's service bureau sent over a doctor to give him massages to help him rest. After a few visits, Zhao had them stopped. Asked why, he said, "The first thing this doctor did each time he came was to kneel down on the floor and take off my shoes. I couldn't stand it." Zhao never seemed to warm to the isolation of Zhongnanhai, the Party's fortified compound in the center of Beijing. When he'd meet people from outside China's inner circle, he'd excitedly ask, "What's the latest news out there?"
But if Zhao was a rule breaker, he was also a man of discipline. Whereas his predecessor as Party chief, Hu Yaobang, was indiscreet (an incautious interview with a Hong Kong journalist may ultimately have cost him his job), Zhao was circumspect and mindful of the potential fallout from every step he took. That rigor extended to his personal life as well. For years when he worked in the provinces, friends urged him to quit smoking. Finally, in 1980 when he was about to become Premier, he changed his mind. "Okay, it's time," he told friends. He never smoked again. (He did continue to drink, however, and had a reputation for being able to handle large quantities; a friend says Zhao had no trouble tossing back six mao-tais over a dinner.)
His years in the provinces were surely his happiest. In Beijing, Deng charged him with leading reforms — first in the economy, and later in politics. But China couldn't easily adapt to dramatic change, and when things got too shaky, Deng opted for stability. He sacrificed his two most liberal lieutenants: first Hu, then Zhao. Dreams of a broad political awakening in China were put on hold.
Zhao's account of his final years is dignified, yet sad. Under house arrest, he could do little but obsess over events, rewinding the clock to pore over the technicalities of the Party's official case against him. From the outside it could be argued that he was handled gently, at least compared with earlier, violent purges of communist officials. He wasn't put in jail, and the Party eventually lost interest in trying to tear him down. But his captors succeeded in keeping him out of view and making him irrelevant, throwing up enough obstacles to deter all but the most determined visitors. As Zhao says in this journal, "The entrance to my home is a cold, desolate place."
Scholars will no doubt wish to compare Zhao's memoir with other accounts of that era. For one thing, he contradicts the widely held belief that the decision in 1989 to call in the military to crack down on student demonstrators was put to a formal vote of the Politburo Standing Committee. Zhao attests otherwise: there was no vote. For Zhao it's a critical detail, since a proper vote could have lent the decision an air of procedural legitimacy. Zhao explains his own defiance in the clearest of terms: "I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students."
Just after the decision was made to call in the army — and aware that his own political career was probably finished — Zhao made a remarkable visit to the seething Tiananmen Square to speak with the student protesters. (Hearing that Zhao was making the trip, his rival, Premier Li Peng, tagged along. Zhao says Li was "terrified" and quickly fled the scene.) Accompanied in the end by director of the General Office Wen Jiabao, who would later become China's Premier, a teary Zhao spoke to students through a bullhorn. "We have come too late," he said, urging students to leave the square to avoid a violent outcome. They didn't heed his words. Around two weeks later, the tanks were unleashed, and hundreds of demonstrators were killed.
Though he was the main voice at the top articulating a gentle response to the protests, Zhao is largely forgotten today. For three years after Tiananmen, China stagnated under the repressive shadow of the Massacre. But then Deng Xiaoping, mindful of his own legacy, made a celebrated trip to China's vibrant southern region and sounded a call to free up economic policy and let people get rich. The result is a China with a booming economy and a repressive government. If Zhao had survived politically — that is, if the hard line hadn't prevailed on Tiananmen — he might have been able to steer China's political system toward more openness and tolerance. His ultimate aim was a strong economy, but he had become convinced that this goal was inextricably linked to the development of democracy.
Zhao's call to begin lifting the Party's control over China's life — to let a little freedom into the public square — is remarkable coming from a man who had once dominated that square. Although Zhao now speaks from the grave, his voice has the moral power to make China sit up and listen.Preface copyright © 2009 by Adi Ignatius