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?…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.