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China’s Dictators at Work: The Secret Story

Zhao Ziyang, former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, in his study in Beijing, where he was under house arrest from 1989 until his death in 2005; from Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang

Prisoner of the State is the secretly recorded memoir of Zhao Ziyang, once holder of China’s two highest Party and state positions and the architect of the economic reforms that have brought the country to the edge of great-power status. The book has had much attention in the West. Inside China, despite official attempts to denigrate and block any news of it on the Internet, it is already having a powerful effect. This effect will increase as Chinese tourists from the mainland buy the Chinese edition of the book in Hong Kong.

Twenty years ago, just before the Tiananmen killings on June 3 and 4, 1989, Zhao was thrown out of office for sympathizing with the students; until his death in 2005 he spent almost sixteen years under house arrest. Born in 1919 and a member of the Communist Party since 1938, once he achieved great power he was a political loner, with only—a big only—Deng Xiaoping to back him. But when Deng decided to smash the Tiananmen demonstrations, he also smashed Zhao. When Zhao died in 2005, he was nearly forgotten; but the state was still put on high security alert.

When asked about Zhao’s memoir just after it was released, the official government spokesman, according to a press report, brushed the question aside, saying only that all matters involving 1989 have been dealt with. The semiofficial Hong Kong press later carried an attack on Zhao’s disclosures:

If overturning the verdict on the 1989 political turbulence is the interim objective of the “memoirs” editors and those foreign media promoting the book, then advocating the change of China’s current political system into Western parliamentary democracy is their ultimate goal.

But a subsequent report shows that the subject of Tiananmen keeps reappearing:

A group of Chinese intellectuals has disclosed it recently met…to urge an end to official silence about the bloodshed 20 years ago. Their speeches are now circulating on some Chinese-language internet sites and through email. “As time has passed, this massive secret has become a massive vacuum. Everyone avoids it, skirts around it,” [said] Cui Weiping, a Beijing-based academic…. “This secret is in fact a toxin poisoning the air around us and affecting our whole lives and spirit.”1

Up to now, even using the word “Tiananmen” on the Internet in China can bring a knock on the door. But foreign news of the book on the Internet has already slipped past the official censors, and may make tens of millions in China who have never or barely heard of Zhao realize what was lost when he died and what might have been.

What indeed? Zhao’s hopes for China’s political future were expressed during the internal exile in which he ended his days. Nothing can be more perilous in China today than saying this, which appears in the memoir:

In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. This system is currently the best one available. It is able to manifest the spirit of democracy and meet the demands of a modern society…. Why is there not even one developed nation practicing any other system?

If Zhao had uttered these words in public, he might have ended in prison, not under house arrest. In December 2008 over 8,500 Chinese, including some officials, signed “Charter 08,” which included these words:

Freedom to Form Groups. The right of citizens to form groups must be guaranteed. The current system for registering nongovernment groups, which requires a group to be “approved,” should be replaced by a system in which a group simply registers itself. The formation of political parties should be governed by the constitution and the laws, which means that we must abolish the special privilege of one party to monopolize power and must guarantee principles of free and fair competition among political parties.

Freedom to Assemble. The constitution provides that peaceful assembly, demonstration, protest, and freedom of expression are fundamental rights of a citizen. The ruling party and the government must not be permitted to subject these to illegal interference or unconstitutional obstruction.2

Some of the main signers were detained briefly for questioning, and one, the poet Liu Xiaobo, was arrested and then disappeared for months; he is still being held by the police. Among other signers, one professor was forced to resign his position as a researcher, and another was transferred from Beijing to a small college in China’s far west.

Zhao, in his taped remarks, just published in book form in Prisoner of the State, cautiously observed that true democracy would require many years of transition, but he could not resist noting the “positive experiences” of Taiwan and South Korea, which have successfully made the transition to democracy and prosperity. As Roderick MacFarquhar writes in his perceptive foreword:

If a patriotic official only came to the conclusion that democracy was needed for China after years of nothing to do but think, what chance is there for a busy official today to have the leisure or the security to think such thoughts while on the job?

And even Zhao remained extremely cautious, refraining from stating the views he taped. In 2000, after reading an account by Zong Fengming, a close friend of Zhao’s, who made over one hundred visits to his home, the Columbia scholar Andrew Nathan observed:

Zhao still believed in what we might call “glasnost authoritarianism”… a system of one-party rule with enough openness to allow citizens to criticize officials but not enough to allow a rival political force to overthrow the ruling party.

Is the book that is now revising this view and calling for parliamentary democracy genuine? Its editors claim that the tapes were secretly recorded, beginning about the year 2000, and smuggled by various means to Hong Kong. The tapes have been listened to by those who knew Zhao’s voice, including Bao Tong, his former secretary and the father of Bao Pu, one of the book’s editors. Bao Tong served seven years in prison after Zhao was purged. Bao Pu says that he helped smuggle the tapes out of China. “The Chinese Communist party is just like the Mafia,” says Bao Tong.

If the Mafia boss thinks you might betray him, he will just kill you or throw you into prison for as long as he likes. This is not how a political party or a government should behave.

Bao Tong says as well:

You have to say it clearly: It’s not a good system, it’s a bad system. It has to be stated that the people who were killed [on June 4] were good people and they shouldn’t have been killed…. We must announce that Tiananmen was a criminal action.

Bao Tong was sent into exile in his home province, forbidden to return until after the June 4 anniversary.

Apart from Zhao’s poignant late advocacy of democracy, much else will enrage his former comrades in the Politburo, particularly his revelations of how chaotic, unruly, uncomradely, and backstabbing the senior leaders were (and at least since the late 1950s always have been). Since dynastic times rulers have feared factions, and Deng is said here to have ordered his immediate underlings not to “squabble.” From Zhao’s account we learn how rumors spread and nasty little notes were passed about; people agreed with others to their faces and then undermined them immediately afterward. Slights against a colleague were never forgotten or forgiven, and could be deadly if that colleague secured the favor of the top man.

The top man in Zhao’s career from the late 1970s was always Deng Xiaoping, Zhao’s only reliable mentor and sponsor. When that sponsorship ended, it was curtains for Zhao, who, even after a lifetime of inner Party work, was outraged at how quickly he was cast out. This was the kind of infighting, whether one was in or out, of which Party members were forbidden to speak, much less quote from. In a recent review of Zhao’s book in The Washington Post, Perry Link notes that he

flouts the unspoken rule against public blame of others in the [ruling] group. He skewers Li Peng, Li Xiannian, Yao Yilin, Deng Liqun, Hu Qiaomu and Wang Zhen repeatedly and by name. He complains that the meeting at which martial law was decided was in violation of the Party Charter because he, the general secretary, should have chaired such a meeting but was not even notified of it.

The careers of some of these grandees reached far back into the Mao era and like members of a quarreling family they could not endure being pushed aside by one of its younger members. When Zhao died in 2005, as Perry Link wrote, they were alarmed:

China’s top leaders formed an “Emergency Response Leadership Small Group,” declared “a period of extreme sensitivity,” put the People’s Armed Police on special alert and ordered the Ministry of Railways to screen travelers headed for Beijing. If this is how the men who rule China reacted to Zhao’s death at home, how will they respond to…a book in which Zhao repeatedly attacks the stonewalling and subterfuge (and sycophancy, mendacity, buck-passing, and back-stabbing) of people whose allies and heirs remain in power today?

The first parts of this book will be of special importance to anyone interested in what happened during the spring of 1989, culminating in the Tiananmen killings of June 3 and 4. The demonstrations had begun immediately after the death on April 15 of the former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whom the students liked for his straightforward, slightly country-bumpkin ways and his honesty, in contrast with the vast official corruption that became one of their principal concerns once the demonstrations got going. Deng had appointed Hu as general secretary, but got rid of him when he seemed opposed to Deng’s attacks on intellectuals and in favor of discussion rather than persecution. Cravenly, in true Party style, Zhao didn’t defend Hu when he was under attack, and chided him for being too reckless. Premier at the time, Zhao reluctantly succeeded Hu as general secretary in 1987.

Zhao’s account of how the protests began confirms much that we already knew or suspected. Hu Yaobang, he acknowledges, had always had “a very good public image.” Many people were enraged by his demotion, which they felt was a stab in the back to reform. Zhao recalls that in the spring of 1989, at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s tiny ruling group, he said that

we should not forbid the activities of the students who were merely holding their own commemorations while the Central Committee was holding memorial services.

Reporting on these events from Beijing, I saw the police cars cruising through the square even then, and observed the constant questioning of students about their identities. Zhao urged that the students should be encouraged to return to their campuses, and said that “bloodshed must be avoided, no matter what.” Everyone agreed to this, he emphasizes. But on April 19, as Zhao was preparing for a visit to North Korea, a fatal time to leave Beijing as it turned out, the hard-line Politburo Standing Committee member Li Peng asked him why he wasn’t taking “counteractions” to stop students from gathering just outside the leadership compound. Zhao replied, he says, that this was not his job, and adds that most of the students had already left the square.

  1. 1

    Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim, “China’s Ex-censor Claims Key Tiananmen Memoirs Role,” Reuters, May 21, 2009.

  2. 2

    The full text of “Charter 08” was published in these pages, January 15, 2009, translated by Perry Link.

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