He Would Have Changed China

Zhao Ziyang: Ruanjinzhong de tanhua (Captive Conversations)

by Zong Fengming
Hong Kong: Kaifang, 399 pp., HK$98

In trying to make sense of their country’s turbulent modern history, Chinese intellectuals sometimes resort to counterfactual speculation. How might things have been different if one or another accidental event had happened differently? For decades it was a sort of parlor game to guess how long the great writer Lu Xun, who died in 1936 possessing a keen eye for hypocrisy and a stiletto wit, and whom Mao Zedong praised in 1942 as “the bravest, most correct national hero,” could have survived in Maoland had he lived beyond 1949. Eight years, most people said. If he had somehow managed to avoid prison until 1957, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of that year surely would have got him.1 Harder to fathom is a question like what would have happened in China if Mao Yichang and Wen Qimei, parents of Mao Zedong, had lived apart in the spring of 1893, when Mao was conceived.

Zong Fengming’s new book, Zhao Ziyang: Captive Conversations, raises a question of the same sort, and it has stimulated much debate both inside and outside China. Zhao Ziyang was premier of China from 1980 to 1987, during which time he gained much credit for pushing China’s economy forward, and from 1987 to 1989 was general secretary of the Communist Party, when he became known for advocating reform of the political system. During the demonstrations at Tiananmen in 1989, Zhao advocated using “democracy and rule of law” to settle the crisis. But Party elder Deng Xiaoping, who held ultimate power and who was swayed by Premier Li Peng and others who saw nefarious intent within the student movement, chose repression.

After Deng had already ordered troops to surround Beijing, he summoned Zhao to ask that he concur in possible use of the military, but Zhao, well knowing that intransigence would cost him his position, declined. After the massacre on June 4, Zhao was charged with “splitting the Party” and “supporting chaos.” He then further sealed his fate by declining to write the kind of “self-criticism” that is customary in the Chinese Communist Party when one is disgraced. He spent the next sixteen years under house arrest at his home at No. 6, Wealth and Power Alley, Beijing. In 2004 he developed pulmonary fibrosis, and he died on January 17, 2005, at the age of eighty-five.

Meanwhile the Deng Xiaoping formula of “market yes, democracy no” marched forward under Zhao’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. China’s economy, military, and international influence have grown steadily while inequality, discontent, repression, and environmental degradation have worsened. All this is background for the counterfactual questions that frustrated Chinese reformers now ask about 1989. How would China be different if Zhao had stayed on? And how might he have done that?

In August 1991, when Boris Yeltsin climbed atop a tank in Moscow to defy a coup by Soviet hard-liners against Mikhail Gorbachev, and when Yeltsin won the support of a cheering crowd and helped to turn the tide against the hard-liners, some in China…

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