And where were China’s intellectual gadflies as this went on? The voices that had been so eloquent in the late 1980s? By 2004 Zhao Ziyang saw the intellectual elite as having been co-opted:
Economic reform has produced a tightly knit interest group that is now joined by students who have been educated in democratic countries of the West. These people have succumbed to power, and what we now have is a tripartite 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.
Zhao concludes that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has produced “power-elite capitalism,” which is “capitalism of the worst kind.” He reflects that he had once accepted the argument that free speech is a luxury when people have empty stomachs, but now (in 1998) sees that the two are connected: without free speech, one gets a “deformed economy.”
China’s common folk can see the deformed economy, and those who are losers within it—farmers whose land has been seized, state workers who have been laid off, retirees whose pensions vanish—have been protesting at increasing rates since the late 1990s. In 2003 the number of “mass incidents” reported by Public Security rose to 60,000, a sixfold increase since 1993. This rise helps to explain the tighter controls on unauthorized speech, publication, and assembly during recent years. In 2004 Zhao Ziyang told Wang Yangsheng:
They [in the government] are afraid. They are afraid to open even a crack, because all kinds of unsolvable problems might then spill out. They have to protect their interests and those of their interest group.
In New York the exiled dissident Hu Ping, editor of Beijing Spring, has noted that when a booming economy creates a need for increased repression, as it has in China, a favorite theory of Western politicians is challenged. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair are all on record as predicting that economic growth inevitably will pull China toward freedom and democracy.4 Hu Ping sees increased wealth for China’s elite as providing not only better means to repress but more reason to, as resentment between haves and have-nots grows. The result, instead of democracy, could be turmoil—or, if the repression works, a successful monster state.5
Such a state would surely make use of Chinese nationalism, which Zhao Ziyang, in his chats with Zong, comes to see as “the greatest threat” to “China’s progress toward a modern civilization.” Nationalism has understandable roots, Zhao felt, because of “the sting of China’s past century of foreign encroachment and bullying.” But authorities can easily exploit this sentiment to “ignite parochial ethnic hatred” and build “the internal unity required to preserve stability and to consolidate rule.”
By the end of his life Zhao feels that China’s politics needs at least three things: a free press, an independent judiciary, and an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. Without a free press, citizens turn into “loyal instruments of authority.” As for the courts,
the experience of our own country shows that there is no good at any level, including the top level, in political interference in the judiciary.
And on Party power:
The Party must release its right to control everything…[otherwise] other social organizations cannot get started and cannot marshal the power to do oversight.
The concept of “dictatorship of the proletariat” must go, and “parliamentary democracy is the necessary way forward.”
Did Zhao hope that China might actually get these things anytime soon? At the end of his life he seemed pessimistic. The biggest obstacle to abolishing one-party rule, he suggests, is one-party rule. The privileged group that sits atop China and enjoys its boom will not easily give up and, as Zhao told Wang Yangsheng, “to confront such a large interest group would be very difficult” even if a leader wanted to. For Zhao there was not the slightest sign that China’s current leaders wanted to. He told Zong Fengming that
the policy of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is only to hand out little favors to the common people in order to bolster their image of “caring for the people” without infringing any serious interests of the elite, let alone changing the system in any way. This just will not solve the problem.
The sharpness of Zhao Ziyang’s views near the end of his life makes it more important that we recall what we know of his thinking before 1989. For most of the 1980s, Hu Yaobang, as general secretary of the Communist Party, had been leading the way for political change while Zhao, as premier, attended to economic matters. In 1987, when Deng forced Hu to resign as general secretary and transferred the title to Zhao, Zhao clearly wanted to continue Hu’s political work. He established a “Central Small Group for Study of Reform of the Political System” and gave it a substantial staff. Asked at a news conference in October 1987 what his top priority as general secretary was, he minced no words: “political reform.”
Before 1987 Zhao had not said much that was politically sensitive. He did allow for small-scale “capitalism”—restoration of private farming, free markets for certain agricultural products, and partial autonomy for industrial enterprises—as part of his plan to open the economy to market forces. But he conceived such changes within a Marxist frame, saying “the initial stages of socialism” needed to include capitalism. According to Zhao, Marx’s argument that all capitalism must end in order to bring about socialism had not taken sufficient account of the necessity of capitalist enterprise to prepare the ground for socialism. Stalin and Mao had made big mistakes by expecting that a socialist utopia could spring directly from a peasant society. The capitalist stage cannot be omitted, Zhao argued, so China needed to go back and “make up this class.” It would be, though, “capitalism under the leadership of the Communist Party” and only a passing stage. In the early 1980s Zhao saw no problem with the formula “capitalism plus one-party rule.”
Between 1987 and 1989, however, he had begun to see how this formula bred corruption. Bao Tong records in his memoirs that Zhao not only realized that democratization is the answer to corruption but further saw that corruption, as a public issue, could be used to stimulate popular interest in building democratic institutions. This was a truly astute insight. The Chinese populace at the time was incensed at the growing evidence of official corruption, and if rule-based institutions like a free press, transparent administration, and legal procedure could be presented as instruments with which to combat corruption, there would instantly be public support for the efforts.
How would Zhao have been inclined to move after 1989? His notions about how to make the transition to democracy seem never to have changed much. He consistently held that, for China, the change should happen slowly and in stages. He cited the example of Hong Kong as showing that there can be civil rights without electoral democracy. So one could start there: release controls on speech and the press in China generally and encourage the establishment of nongovernmental organizations. Give more power to the provinces, less to the center. Then take steps to make the judiciary independent. Next press for more transparency and democratic decision-making inside the (still-monopoly) Communist Party. When all this is done, move toward democracy in general elections. One reason why Zhao felt that a transition to democracy could be carried out by an authoritarian leader was that such a thing had recently happened in Taiwan. Zhao admired Jiang Jingguo, son of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek):
Jiang Jingguo is an amazing person; he deserves to be studied carefully. He followed a world trend and pushed democratic reform on his own. He was educated in the traditions of KMT one-party rule, and also, for many years in the Soviet Union, in the tradition of Communist one-party rule. That he was able to walk out of these old modes of thought is truly impressive.
During his house arrest in the 1990s, Zhao retreated from thinking strictly in terms of Marxist “stages of history” in favor of more varied ways to measure a society’s progress, including by its standard of living, life expectancy, educational level, and the size of the gap between skilled and unskilled labor and between rural and urban ways of life. Prescient among Chinese leaders, Zhao was worried about the effects of economic development on the natural environment as early as 1992.
But it is one thing to have a blueprint, another to carry it out. Here two questions arise: Would Zhao have really pursued a transition to democracy, had he been in power? And if so, could he have pulled it off? The first question arises because of a general pattern, widely observable in Chinese journals in recent years, of retired officials who, once free of the pressures of working within the bureaucracy, suddenly sound much more liberal-minded than before. Zhao’s house arrest may have had this effect on him, and we cannot infer that what he thought at home is what he certainly would have done as general secretary. There is, moreover, evidence that an ideal image of the Communist Party of China, arising from his experience with it in the 1940s, survived in Zhao’s mind to the end. If he had stayed in power and had peered across the brink of actually ending the Party’s system, would he still have moved forward?
The question is interesting but probably moot, because it is not likely that Zhao could have had much power after 1989 even if he had accommodated Deng and stayed on—not, anyway, before Deng died in 1997. Zhao’s talks with Zong Fengming make it quite clear that throughout the 1980s both Zhao and Hu Yaobang were only “frontstage characters” for Deng. All real power rested with “the two old men,” Deng and Chen Yun, each of whom had his network of loyal followers. Deng and Chen divided power awkwardly, controlling somewhat different spheres but with the balance favoring Deng. Zhao reports that Deng once sent a message to Chen that “this Party can have only one grandma.” The seven-man standing committee of the Politburo meant even less to Deng, who called it a “many-headed horse cart” whose meetings are a waste of time. “As Party general secretary,” Zhao asks Zong Fengming rhetorically, “could I change the chief of the Organization Department? The Propaganda Department? I could not—not so long as ‘somebody’ supported him.” To fully grasp Zhao’s predicament one needs to appreciate why Deng was using “frontstage characters” in the first place. Why didn’t he just dictate?
Political power within the Chinese Communist system depends almost entirely on the favor of one’s bureaucratic superiors, not on opinion “from below,” but there is an interesting exception at the very top where no superior exists. There, the opinion of people at the level immediately below the top can matter considerably. If the top leader makes “mistakes,” these can be grounds on which his rivals who are one level down can try to move him out.
Even Mao Zedong was subject to this dynamic. When his Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s precipitated a famine that began costing millions of lives, his “mistake” made him vulnerable. His launching a few years later of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was in large part a counterpunch at rivals who had been holding him responsible for the famine.
Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s fully aware of the political role of mistakes. He was charting a radical new course for the Chinese economy and he knew that the risks involved might be tremendous. If something went wrong he might lose power. By bringing in “frontstage” people like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Deng gained not only energetic executors of his program but potential scapegoats as well. Of course, the underlings would need to remember who was really in charge, and in 1986 Hu seems briefly to have forgotten. When Deng offered that year to step down as chair of the Military Commission, he apparently expected Hu to say, “No, no, you have to stay.” But Hu unwisely agreed to the idea. Deng then saw Hu as a usurper and nine months later Hu was out, ostensibly for “bourgeois liberalization.”
Two years later it was Zhao’s turn to feel the pinch of the “frontstage” position. In May 1988 Deng decided that China’s system of fixed prices should be removed for an experimental period. Skirting Zhao, who was worried about the dangers of doing this too abruptly, Deng began to announce to visiting foreign leaders that China was instituting price reforms, and this left Zhao with no choice but to go along. In summer 1988, when rapid inflation led to panic buying and social unrest, and it became obvious that a “mistake” had been made, Zhao, as general secretary of the Party, had to take responsibility. In September, “representing Party Central,” he published an official apology. Many people were left with the impression that Zhao had been the originator of the ill-conceived reform, and his authority suffered. But even people who knew the truth knew that it did not much matter; right or wrong, Zhao was now falling from favor. People close to Zhao say that by 1989 he was already so weak that he might not have lasted long even if there had been no demonstrations at Tiananmen.
Moreover, if he had wanted to keep his position beyond 1989, small concessions to Deng would not have been enough. He would have had to completely endorse the Deng approach, including Deng’s decision to use troops at Tiananmen. But to do that, while still in a “frontstage” role, would mean that the massacre could have been blamed on him. Zhao does not say in his chats with Zong Fengming that he made such a calculation at the time, but several people close to Zhao have said that it could—and certainly should—have been part of his thinking.
Any doubt that the octogenarian Deng was still capable of such a maneuver against Zhao was dispelled in 1992 when Deng stripped his longtime comrade Yang Shangkun of his power base in the military. The purge of Yang left behind a tripartite division of power among Party chief Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, and Party elder Qiao Shi, among whom relations were sufficiently strained that Deng, standing above them, could still dominate.
Zhao Ziyang would not have done well in such an environment. He never developed much of a power base even in his special field of economics. In early 1988, a chief of the State Bureau of Price Control, whose “backstage somebody” was Chen Yun, could still openly defy Zhao at meetings. For Zhao to have embraced controversial political reform in the 1990s would have required patience, persistence, and Herculean effort, and it is not clear that Zhao, for all his other virtues, was capable of these. Some of his friends defend his 1989 decision to quit rather than to persist by saying that his image as a martyr turned out to be the best practical contribution he could have made to the cause of political reform. A shining example of principle, they hold, has more value than a doomed effort.
Still, to “predict” a counterfactual past is as risky as predicting the future. Who knows? It is indeed far-fetched to imagine Zhao Ziyang atop a tank proclaiming a republic, and yet there was nothing imaginary about the broad, nationwide character of the 1989 upheaval, the government’s fear of it, or Zhao Ziyang’s lasting association with it. Zhao’s sixteen-year house arrest was less intended to punish him than to foreclose any possible revival of his appeal. Could there have been any warmth left in the 1989 embers by the time he died?
China’s top leaders apparently thought so. Within days of Zhao’s death, Hu Jintao had formed an “Emergency Response Leadership Small Group” with himself as chair and China’s top policeman Luo Gan as vice-chair. This group put the paramilitary People’s Armed Police on alert, issued instructions on riot control, and declared “a period of extreme sensitivity.” The group ordered the Ministry of Railways to speed up the movement of people, especially students, who were leaving the capital and to screen tightly anyone moving in. News of Zhao’s death was kept out of the press and television. People approaching the Zhao residence to offer condolences were screened or blocked by State Security.
In fall 2006, when Zong Fengming’s book was about to appear, some friends of his, including Bao Tong and Li Rui, became concerned. Beijing had just banned several other books; the authors were coming under considerable pressure; and Zong had a heart condition. Zong’s friends sent a delegate to suggest that he postpone publication for a while. But Zong was unpersuaded. He was already eighty-six years old; what could they do to him now? Moreover the book was, in a sense, his own declaration of independence. He sent the messenger back with this poem:
SPITTING IT OUT
—on the concern that my friends feel for me
I’m a silkworm, I just expectorate,
Cheer for the truth, nudge justice along,
And hope to leave some pure strands behind.
But I’m a free moth, too.
Broken out of the cocoon, like a Buddha-spirit
Floating aloft, untouched, untouchable.
Zong underwent heart surgery on March 20, 2007, and seems to be doing all right.