Zhao Ziyang, Party Chief of the Chinese Communist Party from 1987-1989, was placed under house arrest for objecting to and outwardly opposing the brutal crackdown more commonly known as the Tiananmen Square Incident (or “Massacre” if you want to be particularly sensational and risk the ire of the CCP).
Zhao writes of those few days before the violence, “I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the general secretary who mobilized the military to crackdown on students.” Unfortunately, on the night before, he recollects that, “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.” Learning Zhao’s thoughts surrounding this event are without doubt the clearest attraction of this book, but there is much more on offer. I will, however, start with Zhao’s chapters about Tiananmen – before, during, and its aftermath.
The atmosphere in 1989 China was far from comfortable. The student protests that escalated into anti-government demonstrations grew from an outpouring of grief at the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer who had been expelled from the Party. Zhao believed the public display of solidarity with Hu was a result of him being “incorruptible while in power”. At the time, “There was a lot of dissatisfaction with corruption… so commemorating Hu Yaobang provided a chance to express this discontent.” Zhao was in Pyongyang when the protests started to get out of hand, allowing the Party hardliners to convince Deng Xiaoping (still the supreme authority in China) that something must be done to stop the spreading protests, and (among other things) an ill-advised April 26th editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper, which described the demonstrations as “premeditated and organized turmoil with anti-Party and anti-socialist motives”. Zhao describes a feeling of paranoia and desperation among Party elders and elite, as they realised old tactics and symbolic gestures no longer had the impact they once did. When Zhao returned from North Korea, the “situation had grown perilous. Large-scale bloodshed had become all too possible.” One can’t help but wonder how China might look today if Zhao had not been ousted, but instead managed to steer the CCP away from pursuing a policy that still echoes through Western commentary and imaginations whenever China enters the news.
Prisoner of the State takes a long, detailed look at the investigation conducted by senior cadre members into Zhao’s actions, which ultimately led to nothing, and is said to have actually held a positive view of Zhao (the document has never been made public). Zhao draws on official documents and correspondence to draw a complete picture for the reader. Zhao outlines the results of the investigation, concluding that much of the “facts and evidence” that was supposed to show how he was “supporting turmoil” and “splitting the Party” was contradictory and didn’t support actual events and facts, concluding that, even falsified, “they were still not enough to support the judgment made against me.”
Zhao’s house arrest, under which he remained for the majority of the rest of his life, came complete with plenty of difficulties – for both Zhao and also the Chinese Party elite who wished to effectively brush him under the carpet: “Even mundane things, such as attempts to go out golfing, set off tragicomic clashes with authorities who want[ed] him out of the public eye.” Zhao also describes how, for the first few years, the restrictions to his movements were never made official – he was not presented with documentation or a list of rules and regulations that would define his pseudo-incarceration until after a golfing trip, with an official paper trail laid down when Li Peng and Jiang Zemin officially complained. The chapters about Zhao’s house arrest are a fascinating look at an institutional paranoia that resulted in detailed regulations and limitations to Zhao’s movements and activities – no contact with foreigners or reporters being most significant, to the extent where Zhao was restricted from even playing golf (an obvious passion of Zhao’s) at foreign-owned clubs.
His attempts to get his house arrest rescinded, writing many letters to Deng and other Chinese officials, met with no success: “All these letters of mine fell like stones dropped into the sea, disappearing without a trace. Their tactic was simply never to respond.”
At a time when China (and the world) are still deciding how best to address the economic crisis that started in 2008, Zhao’s account of the economic reforms of the late-1970s and 1980s is a valuable insight into China’s previous major reforms. He talks at length about this period (which he had a considerable hand in, even if progress was disrupted by the Tiananmen protests and government reaction) and what they meant for China; for example, the development of the coastal regions into major trade and manufacturing hubs, and how China followed the model set down by other Asian Tigers – i.e., taking advantage of the abundant, cheap, and skilled labour supply, which allowed for considerable growth that continued consistently until the economic shock towards the end of 2008. “For many years, [China’s] economic development efforts yielded poor results. They demanded a great deal of effort while providing few rewards,” which was compounded by the politicised virtue of self-reliance, Zhao says. He continues,
“The result of doing everything ourselves was that we were not doing what we did best. We suffered tremendous losses because of this. I now realize more and more that if a nation is closed, is not integrated into the international market, or does not take advantage of international trade, then it will fall behind and modernization will be impossible.”
Zhao’s insistence that corruption (a constant in Chinese history) needed to be addressed, and the fact that “the only solution for resolving this issue is continued deepening of reform to separate government from enterprise,” by delegating responsibilities and authority to institutions and regional administrators, and also by increasing accountability and transparency, because “The less transparency, the easier it is to cheat”, was met with hostility and opposition from the stalwarts in the Party, and probably started the process to oust Zhao. “If a political party has no check on its power, its officials easily become corrupt,” Zhao writes. The implications of his conclusion are considerable, when you consider who is writing it:
“The situation will eventually improve with the building of democratic politics, a wider variety of political activities, a wider slice of the populace participating in the process, and checks on power by public opinion.”
The final section of Prisoner of the State offers Zhao’s proposals for how China must adapt to the challenges of the 21st Century, and also chapters that tie together the events previously covered in the book. This section includes the following: his opinion on what Deng Xiaoping really believed, alleging that he was dissatisfied with the political system in place (247-253); evidence that Hu Yaobang had “undoubtedly” wanted to make China democratic (254-255); an explanation of the evolution of his views on economic- and political reform; he refutes the claims in Gorbachev’s memoirs that Zhao hinted at a move towards multiparty democracy in China, as at the time (1989), Zhao was still very much a political conservative even if he did believe in modernisation and greater freedom of the press (256-260); finally Zhao admits that China’s political system is not ideal, and that “if a country wishes to modernize, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentary democracy as its political system,” and that the ultimate goal of China must have this in mind. (270) While accepting that China’s condition will enforce a long transition, Zhao continues:
“If we don’t move toward this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China’s market economy: issues such as an unhealthy market, profiting from power, rampant social corruption, and a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor will the rule of law ever materialize.”
Even though it’s portioned into short chapters, the book was at times a little slow. This being said, certain chapters were riveting as they detailed the behind-the-scenes political struggles, back-stabbing, rivalries and drama that came with many important events and decisions as China stumbled economically and socially as it tried to acquire the best of both worlds (communist and capitalist). Ably introduced, concluded, and contextualised by the three editors – Adi Ignatius, Roderick MacFarquhar, and Bao Pu – Prisoner of the State is a timely, important account of some of the major events and issues that formed the political landscape of China towards the end of the 20th Century.
Overall, I would say that Prisoner of the State is a must-read for anyone with an interest (professional or otherwise) in China and Chinese history. With the government in Beijing retaining a tight grip on the dissemination of information, Zhao’s memoirs are an invaluable addition to the existing literature on the fateful events of April-June 1989. Very worth your time.
Further reading: Andrew Nathan, Perry Link, Orville Schell, & Liang Zhang, The Tiananmen Papers (2002); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes (2008); Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution (2005); John Gittings, The Changing Face of China (2006); Jonathon Spence, The Search for Modern China (1999); Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow (2008)