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Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang (2009)

de Zhao Ziyang

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Gives readers a front row seat to the secret inner workings of China's government. It is the story of Premier Zhao Ziyang, who tried to stop the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and was dethroned for his efforts.
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Zhao Ziyang, former Chairman of the Communist Party in China, was politically sidelined in May 1989 and went into house arrest as a result of his opposition to the government response to students occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This fascinating personal and secret memoir recorded in the years after his arrest was published only after Zhao’s death in 2005. Bao Pu, son of Zhao’s trusted advisor, secretary, and speech writer, Bao Tong, transcribed, translated, and published the documents in his publishing house in Hong Kong in 2009. Simon & Schuster published an edition with a Foreword by Roderick MacFarquhar, noted China scholar.

In that Foreword, MacFarquhar notes that Zhao was an economic reformer but a political conservative in the 1980’s, but during his house arrest he became increasingly convinced that political change was both necessary and advantageous, i.e., economic development must be accompanied by development of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. MacFarquhar asks readers to consider that it took some years of house arrest for Zhao to come to these conclusions and wonders how much more difficult it would be for those involved in the day-to-day management of state and skirmishes within the Politburo to come to similar conclusions.

Though Zhao Ziyang has been erased from public discourse in China today, he did have some notion that the demands of the students in Tiananmen were not essentially undermining the state, but all about modifying the state to better represent the will of the people. Reading the full narrative makes clear that Zhao’s position as Party Chairman in the spring of 1989 was already tenuous. He still had Deng’s support, but that was all. After his refusal to carry out Deng’s wishes in handling the student demonstration, his political career was finished.

Hu Yaobang, in the chapter about his ouster, sounds politically tone deaf. When faced with conflict Hu ignored it or went out of the country. Hu was Party Chairman when Zhao was Premier. Hu was forced to resign in January 1987, and Zhao was asked to take his place, though he’d made clear that he did not want the role of Communist Party Chairman. He would have preferred to stay focused on economic issues as Premier.

Zhao speculates that Hu was forced out because he suggested in interviews and by “loose talk” that Deng Xiaoping would (should) retire from making decisions. Zhao did the exact opposite with Gorbachev in 1989, suggesting that Deng was really in control of everything, and that Gorbachev, if he wanted the “final word” on anything, should meet with Deng. A little later we understand the reasons for this more fully.

Corporate types who have lived/worked with a group of people who disagree but who never openly voice their disagreements and instead jockey for position by leaks or by willfully excluding someone from discussions will recognize immediately the stomach-churning turmoil of the 1980’s government of the most populous country on earth. Each individual was a planetary power shifting his weight yet no one was precisely sure what the actual sticking points were since no one voiced their opposition openly.

It appears that the shift of Zhao to position of General Secretary of the Party from Premier in 1987 was the beginning of his downfall. Though Deng Xiaoping created a Central Economic and Financial Leading Group with the intention that Zhao would keep his hold over the management of the economy while at the same time handling Party affairs, Zhao was sidelined and attacked by more conservative ideologues Li Xiannian, Wang Zhen, Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun.

The real writing on Zhao’s headstone was Zhao’s failure to push through price reforms in the fall of 1988. He’d made preparation, proposed and supported the idea but when it came to implementation, he choked. Zhao’s chapter on official corruption gives a clear explanation of how vast sums can be channeled and manipulated through government enterprises unless there is price reform. Deng Xiaoping had made clear that he wanted this work done because all the economic reform efforts in the world couldn’t work properly without price reform. Deng said repeatedly that Zhao should be strong and if it all went sideways, that Deng would take the blame. But Zhao couldn’t pull the trigger, and the conservatives then had the ammunition they needed to refuse his suggestions as bank runs, inflation, and lack of available money slowed the economy. Reforms were retrenched.

Zhao later said that this was the thing he most regretted. Indeed, we learn something about the nature of leadership with his failure in this instance: a leader doesn’t necessarily have to be fearless, but he must be bold. A leader may be afraid, but he sometimes must make a bold move despite that fear (think Shackleton). I think Deng understood this. Deng himself was vulnerable to ultraconservatives who sought to sideline his influence, and he tried to preempt their attempts by resigning from all posts and suggesting other elderly statesmen do the same.

What happens next is just the burying of the body. By 1989 Zhao must have known his position was extremely tenuous, and therefore convinced Deng not to resign his posts, knowing he would lose his powerful mentor and his one friend in the upper reaches of power. Zhao finally split with Deng over the student demonstrations, which Deng felt should be dealt with harshly, by forcing the students from the Square. If Western observers thought the political center in China was in turmoil during Tiananmen, they had missed the fact that power was being consolidated, in fact. Deng stepped down from his position as Chairman of Central Military Commission in 1989, despite promising Zhao that he would wait a year. Deng was still consulted on official matters until 1992.

Zhao never was released from house arrest, and very rarely left his home. He died in 2005. His memoir of his final years was discovered at his home in plain sight, recorded over his grandchildren’s music tapes and tapes of Chinese opera.

This memoir was both heartbreaking and heart stirring. It has the feel of truth—Zhao Ziyang’s truth—which is all we ask of a memoirist. Bao Pu did a great job condensing the material, providing explanatory text, and making a worthwhile testament to Zhao Ziyang’s life.

( )
  bowedbookshelf | Oct 6, 2014 |
The internal workings, and funtionary names, of the Chinese Communist Party can be dizzying but Ziyang's very detailed account, from the General Secretary's seat, of the politics involved in China's turn toward a market economy makes interesting and timely reading. The fact that Ziyang composed the book in secret while under decades of house arrest and it was smuggled out for publication after his death, may overshadow and give some undue weight to his testimony. ( )
  Smiley | Mar 12, 2011 |
This is a somewhat enlightening and educational look at the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party leadership during the late 1980s, including the Tiananmen Square massacres, as seen through the eyes of then Chinese Premier and General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang.

Zhao Ziyang came to power in 1987, through the support of acknowledged supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, with the charge to modernize the Chinese economy and pursue a path of political liberalism. When the Chinese student protests broke out, in response to the death of Zhao’s predecessor, this pursuit of political liberalism evaporated under the heat of the reactionary members of the Chinese Central Committee. When these members were able to persuade Deng to support their policy of martial law and military response, Zhao’s role in Chinese government came to an end.

This book is a transcription of Zhao’s thoughts concerning his period in power and the circumstances leading to his downfall and subsequent house arrest. The tapes that he made were certainly not authorized by the Chinese authorities and were only published after being smuggled out in pieces and reassembled outside China.

While the first half of the book deals with the final years of his Communist Party leadership, the book then reverts to the earlier years of his service and at this point, the book lost much of its interest in my opinion. Quite frankly, it was terribly boring and something of a chore to complete. Suffice it to say that Zhao was a pawn in the leadership struggle between Deng Xioaping and other aged conservative Communist members of the Central Committee.

By their nature, the writings are somewhat disjointed and poorly presented, though the editors do the readers a service by beginning each chapter with a historical context. The plethora of Chinese names is confusing and at times, difficult to follow from scene to scene. However, the inner workings of the Chinese Communist government during this historically monumental period in Chinese and world history are possibly enlightening and educational for those with an interest in the subject.

First and foremost, Zhao seeks to absolve himself of any responsibility for the 1989 student massacres and the preceding economic upheavals, and by comparison to many of the other Communist hardliners, he was certainly a voice of moderation. Almost comically, however, he spends many pages arguing the illegality of his removal and subsequent house arrest, quoting chapter and verse from Communist Party procedural manuals and “Chinese Law”, as though he were not a participant in a repressive, Communist autocracy, but instead was due the benefits of a western style democracy, governed by the rule of law. It was enough to make one exclaim, “DUDE, YOU ARE IN CHINA!! The same people that ordered the massacre of Chinese students are dealing with your case now. Deng Xiaoping is the putative Emperor of China; you are at his mercy and he is not pleased with your actions.”

The final half of the book is mired in economic theory and endless explanations and excuses for why the Chinese economy foundered during the relevant period. Again, it is hopelessly boring and poorly put together. I can truthfully give the first part of the book 3½ -4 stars due to the historical importance of the Tiananmen Square events and the behind the scenes look at the Chinese government’s decision making process. At the point where the book reverts to Zhao’s early years, however, the book becomes a one start effort. Go to the library, read the first half of the book and skip the rest. ( )
  santhony | Sep 21, 2009 |
This book was easy reading for someone who has watch the Chinese situation in the last 20 years. It develops an inside perspective of the Communist hierachy under Deng after Mao and particularly during the 1989 student crises. It shows the conflict in China about control and gives one a better feel of governmental operations. ( )
1 vote LynnCar | Jul 27, 2009 |
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Gives readers a front row seat to the secret inner workings of China's government. It is the story of Premier Zhao Ziyang, who tried to stop the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and was dethroned for his efforts.

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