Former Chinese premier and Communist Party secretary-general Zhao Ziyang’s (趙紫陽) memoir, Prisoner of the State, was released on May 19, just in time for the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Prior to its release, many wondered if the volume — based on about 30 tapes that he recorded, in secret, around 2000, when he was still under house arrest following the events of 1989 — would cause a stir in China. After all, the Beijing leadership created an emergency body to deal with the potential repercussions of Zhao’s death in 2005, fearing that his passing could somehow reawaken passion for liberalism among Chinese, a passion for which, given his reform-mindedness and opposition to the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, he had become a figurehead — or would have, that is, had he not been completely erased from people’s collective memory by his house arrest and severe restrictions on travel.
Zhao’s book, the result of efforts by a group of individuals in China who risked their personal safety to bring his thoughts to an international audience, came out, it sold well and was generally well received. And Beijing ignored it.
Now that this milestone has passed, and with a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whose grip on power is perhaps more secure than it ever has been in its 60-year history, the relevant thing to do with Zhao’s book is to mine it for insights into the inner workings of the CCP and the man himself. After all, if Zhao the reformist managed to climb the ladder of power, other officials within the CCP today could be made of the same mettle and, given the right circumstances, could endeavor to continue Zhao’s efforts to liberalize the country’s political system.
One thing that is important to note, however — and Prisoner of the State makes this quite clear — is that while Zhao was undoubtedly a reformist on the economy, his political views when he was a party official were relatively conservative. At the very least, they were pragmatic, and Zhao demonstrates time and again that he could play with the best as he sought to maneuver amid the main factions within the party, those that sought to open China to the world and experiment with market economy under a socialist system, against those whose views seemed to have ossified back in the 1950s. Only late in life, after years of house arrest and a few years before his death, did Zhao seem to acknowledge that, though not without its flaws, the Western style of parliamentary democracy is superior to other forms of governance, and should therefore be emulated, however gradually, by China. The key here is that while he was in power, such thoughts do not appear to ever have crossed his mind, and Zhao toed the line like any other CCP official when it came to ensuring the supremacy of the party, or the question of Taiwan (which gets surprisingly little mention).
Contrary to popular knowledge, Zhao’s political star waned before the tragic events of June 4, 1989, as his conservative detractors within the party used a botched consumer goods price adjustment, which resulted in panic and a bank run, to strike at the economic liberalization he had carefully managed, with elder Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) blessing (while history credits Deng with laying the foundations to China’s economic development, Zhao’s memoirs clearly show that the theory and hard work behind this success was largely his). His soft approach to the demonstration in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, his assessment that the student demonstrators did not threaten the survival of the CCP, and his willingness to talk with them to find common ground also served as ammunition for his conservative opponents, who saw his handling of the matter as proof that he was attempting to split the party, or even sided with the students. (Ironically, Zhao seems to have believed that the demonstrators only wanted the CCP to correct its flaws rather than challenge the one-party authoritarian state, a view that, with the advantage of hindsight, seems a little naïve.)
While Prisoner of the State does not reveal much that wasn’t already in the literature (e.g., The Tiananmen Papers) about the weeks leading to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Zhao’s retelling of that period is taken in the context of the growing opposition to his rule, which he discusses in the sections “War in the Politburo” and “A Tumultuous Year,” it becomes easier to see how the CCP — with Deng’s approval — would quickly dispose of Zhao and turn back the clock on reform, both economic and political.
The section “House Arrest” is of particular interest, as it shows the lengths the CCP and the security apparatus would go to make sure Zhao did not come in contact with society. The result is tragicomedy, with Zhao having to fight to play a round of golf at a Japanese-owned gold course; the state’s refusal for him to travel anywhere near Hong Kong and Guangdong, or to attend funerals; and its outright refusal to reply to his numerous letters asking for a description of, and the rationale behind, the restrictions imposed on him under his house arrest. This section highlights the randomness and lack of logic that is inherent to authoritarian states, so much so that the state’s 30-point investigative report about Zhao’s “misdeeds” during the Tiananmen crisis — which is quoted in full — reads more like an homage to his actions than a list of incriminating evidence.
Equally relevant is the section on Zhao’s personal journey on the economic front, which culminated in his efforts, as premier, to bring about liberalization of the economy, an enterprise that, given the not insubstantial opposition to reform that existed at the time, would not have succeeded had it not been for Deng’s similar views on the matter.
Late in his active political career, Zhao seemed to have reached the conclusion that economic reform could not continue without some degree of political reform, with the caveat that the CPP should remain primus inter pares. However, by the time he was adopting those views, it was already too late, and the drift toward his political exclusion had already begun, with the events of June 4 — and Zhao’s opposition to the use of force against the demonstrators — serving as the ultimate push that sent him to his demise.
Ultimately, what is most striking about Prisoner of the State isn’t what it tells us about Zhao, whose views, though progressive for the time and the party he served, are far from exceptional. In fact, most of what he discusses — even the most “controversial” aspects — are just plain common sense. The truly striking thing is that people in China today, 20 years after the disruptive events at Tiananmen Square, still have to risk their personal safety and that of their families to bring this book into being. What Prisoner of the State shows us, therefore, is that while China has grown by leaps on the economic front, politically it remains a country that, to paraphrase Zhao, is run by a few men who refuse to yield an inch on their control of the state. Toward the end, Zhao saw the need for a free press in China. That books like this collection would continue to be banned in China today, or that individuals would have to use cloak-and-dagger measures to bring the tapes out and compile them into a book, shows us that freedom of expression still doesn’t exist in China. Therein, perhaps, lies Zhao’s penultimate condemnation of the CCP, his final act of defiance.
Prisoner of the State isn’t a bad book; in fact, it’s a pretty good book. But there’s nothing dangerous in it — not even for the CCP.