When Zhao Ziyang, the former Chinese premier who in 1989 had opposed using military force against student protesters, died four years ago, 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 heading to Beijing. If this is how the men who rule China reacted to Zhao’s death at home, how, then, will they respond to the posthumously published “Prisoner of the State,” 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?
Whatever the fallout, one element will likely stay constant: This same group of men — mostly from a set of quarreling families bound together by common interests and long used to surviving turmoil and 180-degree policy shifts — will remain in power. Like a seal on a rolling ball, they are good at staying on top.
But to keep its balance, the group sometimes needs to sacrifice a wayward member. In 1989, Zhao, then the Communist Party’s general secretary and the major architect of China’s economic reforms, was such a victim. Zhao had argued for “dialogue” over martial law as a way to handle the pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. On May 17, 1989, he was overruled, and on May 19 stripped of power. On June 4, soldiers fired on demonstrators in the streets of Beijing, killing hundreds. Zhao was charged with “splitting the party” and “supporting turmoil” and was confined to house arrest until his death in 2005.
Now, in “Prisoner of the State,” a book timed to appear precisely 20 years since his purge, Zhao speaks from beyond the grave. He flouts the unspoken rule against public blame of others in the 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 any such meeting but was not even notified of it.
The book is based on about 30 audiotapes he discreetly recorded at home during 1999 and 2000. Clips from the tapes are to be released simultaneously with the book, and a Chinese-language transcription is supposed to appear around the same time. The material is largely consistent with what is already known from the “The Tiananmen Papers,” an unauthorized compilation of government documents published in 2001, and from “Captive Conversations,” a Chinese-language record of conversations between Zhao and his friend Zong Fengming, published in 2007. But the up-close-and-personal tone of the present book stands out.
Scholars will mine “Prisoner of the State” for historical nuances. It is clearer here than elsewhere that Zhao was already in serious political trouble in 1988, before the democracy movement began; and that Zhao had bickered with Hu Yaobang over economic policy as early as 1982, even though the two reformist leaders needed each other. Deng Xiaoping appears more strikingly than elsewhere as a Godfather figure: Other leaders jockey for access to him, dare not contradict him and use his words to attack one another. Yet even Deng seeks to avoid responsibility for difficult decisions. The group has dictatorial power, yet is rife with insecurity.
Sometimes these leaders — the two dozen or so at the top — appear oddly out of touch with the society they rule. For example, Zhao — who was more clued in than the others — thought that “groups of old ladies and children slept on the roads” of Beijing in order to block the entry of martial law troops. The Beijing populace did try to block the troops, but no old ladies slept on roads. Zhao lamented that the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (who after the massacre was #1 on the government’s wanted list) worsened the political atmosphere during the protests because Fang, “who was abroad, attacked Deng Xiaoping personally, by name.” But Fang was not abroad; he was living on the outskirts of Beijing and deliberately observing silence. More seriously, Zhao and the others did not seem to understand that the nationwide protests arose not from superficial impressions of the West or from fleeting issues like the 1988 inflation but from a long-term and deep-seated revulsion at corruption, special privilege and the stultifying “work unit” system that Communist Party rule had brought to China.
In 1989, Zhao urged his fellow leaders to enter into reasoned dialogue with the student protesters, who, he insisted, were “absolutely not against the basic foundations of our system” but were “merely asking us to correct some of our flaws.” Could it be that Zhao really believed this? Or was he using it, as the students themselves were, as protective cover? Of course the students knew that it would be dangerous — indeed foolhardy — to declare open opposition to the ruling system. But to conclude that they were interested only in flaws is a bit silly. When certain things could not be stated plainly in public, the students sometimes resorted to double entendre — singing, for example, lines from the Chinese national anthem: “Rise up, oh people who would not be slaves. . . . China’s most perilous hour is nigh.” Even more mischievous was the singing of selected lines from the 1950s song “Without the Communist Party there would be no New China” — where the singers intentionally left the meaning of “New China” ambiguous.
Ironically, it was Zhao’s incarceration after 1989 that brought him closer to the street life of ordinary Chinese. His guards told him it was “inconvenient” for him to play golf; he had to guess at the content of unwritten rules, to deal with “made-up excuses” and to engage in vacuous word games with functionaries. His indignation at such treatment suggests that he was learning about these routine features of his society’s political life for the first time.
But incarceration also provided him with time to read and reflect broadly on China’s situation in history. At the end of “Prisoner of the State,” we see Zhao arrive at positions more radical than any he had taken before — positions that the Chinese government had long been calling “dissident.” For instance, Zhao eventually concluded that China needs a free press, freedom to organize and an independent judiciary. The Communist Party will have to release its monopoly on power. Ultimately, China will need parliamentary democracy.
What it actually has, he observed near the end of his life, is continuing rule by “a tightly-knit interest 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.” He saw that China’s “abundant and cheap” labor had produced an economic boom. The society’s rulers claim they have lifted millions from poverty, but in truth the millions have lifted themselves, through hard work and long hours, and in the process they have catapulted the elite to unprecedented levels of opulence and economic power.
The seal continues to straddle the ball — insecure as ever, but still definitely on top.
Perry Link, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers and teacher of comparative literature and foreign languages at the University of California, Riverside.