Memories Of A Forgotten Reformer


We’re all familiar with the iconic image of a man defiantly staring down a line of tanks the day after the People’s Liberation Army blasted its way into Beijing on the night of 3/4 June 1989. The anonymous man’s suicidal act has become a symbol of spontaneous individual defiance in the face of overwhelming state repression.

For all the faceless brute force on display in that image, however, the reality is the Chinese Communist Party was far from unified as its tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. The recently published Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang secretly smuggled out of China as a series of tape recordings reveals a leadership bitterly divided over the protests and split throughout the 1980s between those favouring increasing liberalisation and conservatives violently opposed to reform.

Like the 1989 protests, Zhao Ziyang has been largely forgotten in China, despite once ostensibly being the most powerful man in the People’s Republic. Compared to the octogenarian party elders left over from the Maoist era, he was a sprightly youth of 61 when he became China’s Premier in 1980. As the Party Secretary of Guangdong and Sichuan Provinces during the 1960s and 70s, Zhao gained a reputation as an energetic, pragmatic reformer, although his economic liberalism saw him purged for several years during the Cultural Revolution. While his career in the provinces made him a popular public figure, his distance from the capital meant he lacked a power base in Beijing when he joined the national leadership, save for the support of one crucial figure: Deng Xiaoping.

A hardened party veteran twice purged by Mao, Deng held few official positions during the 1980s, but nonetheless called the shots in China throughout the decade. Though politically conservative, Deng was intent on kick-starting the nation’s economy following the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution, and found in Zhao Ziyang an intelligent, capable reformer with a decent grasp of economics a rare skill in cadres of the time.

In Prisoner of the State, Zhao recounts the endless political manoeuvrings and linguistic contortions required to push through reformist policies and liberalise the economy against the wishes of many of the old guard. His account gives lie to the official narrative of the post-Mao era propagated in contemporary China, which tells of a nation steadily marching towards ever-greater prosperity and openness from 1978 under the unified stewardship of the Communist Party of China. In fact, the uneven economic progress of the 1980s was only achieved with enormous struggle on the part of Zhao and his supporters, working with Deng’s backing.

It wasn’t just his economic policies that brought Zhao into conflict with party conservatives. He also strove to minimise the damage of several "anti-liberal" campaigns instigated by party die-hards spooked by the rising tide of debate and creative expression washing over the country. Especially after becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1987, Zhao claims he came to realise that political reform particularly a separation of powers between the state and the judiciary was essential to contain the corruption and abuses of power that were becoming endemic as the country’s material wealth grew.

In fact, Zhao identifies the failure to implement political reforms approved at the 13th Party Congress in October 1987 as the spark for the protests of mid-1989. The chapters of Prisoner of the State concerning the seven weeks leading up to the 4 June crackdown are the most charged, revealing the extent to which conservatives manipulated the social unrest, fanning the protests with inflammatory statements and steadily driving a wedge between Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang. Deng’s backing for the imposition of martial law not only represented the merciless crushing of popular protest, but also the end of Zhao’s career and the triumph of party conservatives clinging to dictatorial rule.

Tellingly, Zhao disputes the commonly held belief that martial law was endorsed by a majority of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in theory the nation’s highest decision making body at a meeting at Deng’s house on 17 May 1989. Zhao maintains there was no formal vote, and that of the five committee members present only two supported the use of troops to clear Tiananmen Square.

Of the others, one followed Zhao’s lead in refusing to endorse martial law, while a third refrained from expressing a view. Zhao’s claim is important, as it shows that in declaring martial law, Deng and other conservatives were not only prepared to condemn an unknown number of civilians to death, but also to disregard any presence of procedural legality.

Following his refusal to support the military crackdown, Zhao was quickly removed from all official posts and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, mostly in his Beijing home, where he was permitted few visitors. His passing in 2005 barely rated a mention in the Chinese press. The former Premier escaped relatively lightly — Zhao’s one-time aide and fellow Central Committee member Bao Tong was imprisoned for seven years for opposing martial law. Still loyal to his former boss’ ideas, Bao was instrumental in smuggling the secret tape recordings of Zhao’s memoirs out of China.

While much of Prisoner of the State is taken up with the minutiae of life inside Beijing’s lumbering bureaucratic machine during the 1980s of interest to only the most diehard China watchers Zhao’s account of the events of 1989 provides an important missing chapter in the story of the democracy movement and the massacre that followed. The protests were the climax of a decade of increasing public debate and discussions of reform within the party, and it took more than just martial law on the streets of Beijing to stem the reformist tide.

In order to entrench the corrupt dictatorship that continues today, the party also had to systematically imprison or force into exile the most questioning and capable of its own members, freezing China’s political development and destroying any hope of peaceful evolution under the current system.

In the long term, this may prove to be a bigger crime than the massacre itself.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.