The Secret Memoir of Fallen Chinese Leader Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) (Updated)

The of are due to come out this month. A look at Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

From Adi Ignatius, one of the book’s editors, in TIME magazine:

When the tanks and troops blasted their way into Beijing’s 20 years ago, crushing the student-led protest movement that had captivated the world, the biggest political casualty was Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, the man who had tried hardest to avoid the bloodshed.

Outmaneuvered by his hard-line rivals, Zhao was stripped of power and placed under house arrest. The daring innovator who had introduced capitalist policies to post–Mao Zedong China spent his last 16 years virtually imprisoned, rarely allowed to venture away from his home on a quiet alley in Beijing. As his hair turned white, Zhao passed many lonely hours driving golf balls into a net in his courtyard.

Yet as it turns out, Zhao never stopped thinking about Tiananmen. Through courage and subterfuge, he found a way, in the isolation of his heavily monitored home, to secretly record his account of what it was like to serve at China’s highest levels of power — and more amazingly, he sneaked his memoir out of the country. Published this month, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang provides an intimate look at one of the world’s most opaque regimes during some of modern China’s most critical moments. It marks the first time a Chinese leader of such stature — as head of the party, Zhao was nominally China’s highest-ranking official — has spoken frankly about life at the top. Most significantly, Zhao’s account could encourage future Chinese leaders to revisit the events of Tiananmen and acknowledge the government’s tragic mistakes there. Hundreds of people were killed or imprisoned by government forces, though few Chinese today know the full story.

Perry Link reviews the book in the Washington Post. Perry Link was a co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers, published in 2001. A Chinese translation of the review is also available.

Ironically, it was Zhao’s incarceration after 1989 that brought him closer to the street life of ordinary Chinese. His guards told him it was “inconvenient” for him to play golf; he had to guess at the content of unwritten rules, to deal with “made-up excuses” and to engage in vacuous word games with functionaries. His indignation at such treatment suggests that he was learning about these routine features of his society’s political life for the first time.

But incarceration also provided him with time to read and reflect broadly on China’s situation in history. At the end of “Prisoner of the State,” we see Zhao arrive at positions more radical than any he had taken before — positions that the Chinese government had long been calling “dissident.” For instance, Zhao eventually concluded that China needs a free press, freedom to organize and an independent judiciary. The Communist Party will have to release its monopoly on power. Ultimately, China will need parliamentary democracy.

What it actually has, he observed near the end of his life, is continuing rule by “a tightly-knit interest group . . . in which the political elite, the economic elite, and the intellectual elite are fused. This power elite blocks China’s further reform and steers the nation’s policies toward service of itself.” He saw that China’s “abundant and cheap” labor had produced an economic boom. The society’s rulers claim they have lifted millions from poverty, but in truth the millions have lifted themselves, through hard work and long hours, and in the process they have catapulted the elite to unprecedented levels of opulence and economic power.

From John Pomfret, also at the Washington Post. A Chinese translation of the review is also available.

The posthumous appearance of Zhao’s memoir, which he dictated onto audiotapes and the publisher has titled “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang,” marks the first time since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China 60 years ago that a senior Chinese leader has spoken out so directly against the party and its system.

Reaching from the grave, Zhao pillories a conservative wing of the party for missteps that led to the bloody crackdown, which began after dark on June 3, 1989, and left hundreds dead. Few in China’s leadership at the time escape Zhao’s criticism. He castigates Deng Xiaoping, the man credited with opening China to the West and launching its economic reforms; Li Peng, the dour premier at the time of the Tiananmen tragedy; Deng Liqun, a hard-line party theoretician; Li Xiannian, a former vice president; and even Hu Yaobang, Zhao’s longtime ally, whose death April 15, 1989, touched off the student-led protests.

But Zhao’s memoir also constitutes a broader challenge to the generally accepted version of history, especially in China, that places Deng at the center of the economic reforms that have turned China into a global economic power. While acknowledging that none of the reforms “would have been possible without Deng Xiaoping’s support,” Zhao depicts Deng as more of a benevolent godfather than a hands-on architect. Much of the critical design — such as dismantling agricultural communes, mapping out China’s hugely successful export-led growth model and conjuring up ideological sleights-of-hand that allowed China’s Communists to embrace capitalism — was left to Zhao. In China, Zhao’s role in the momentous economic changes and political events that led up to the Tiananmen crackdown have been airbrushed from history. “Prisoner of the State” is his attempt to place himself back in the picture.

“Reading Zhao’s unadorned and unboastful account of his stewardship, it becomes apparent that it was he rather than Deng who was the actual architect of reform,” wrote Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, in a foreword to the book.

Lastly, the New York Times provides excerpts from the book, as well as Zhao’s own audio recordings. The following is taken from Part 1, Chapter 4: ‘The Crackdown’ (Pp. 33-34).

On the night of June 3rd, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all.

I prepared the above written material three years after the June Fourth tragedy. Many years have now passed since this tragedy. Of the activists involved in this incident, except for the few who escaped abroad, most were arrested, sentenced, and repeatedly interrogated. The truth must have been determined by now. Certainly the following three questions should have been answered by now.

First, it was determined then that the student movement was “a planned conspiracy” of anti-Party, anti-socialist elements with leadership. So now we must ask, who were these leaders? What was the plan? What was the conspiracy? What evidence exists to support this? It was also said that there were “black hands” within the Party. Then who were they?

Update: Read an op-ed about the book by Bao Pu, one of the book’s editors and the son of Bao Tong, a top aide to Zhao Ziyang. China Beat also posts several links about the book. Read more coverage from Google News.

May 14, 2009 11:25 AM
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