China and catharsis in the words of Zhao
By Verna Yu
HONG KONG - Last week's publication of the memoir of former Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted for supporting the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989, has no doubt sent shock waves through the top echelons of the party ahead of the June 4 anniversary of the crackdown.
Zhao, who was kept under house arrest for nearly 16 years after the events until his death in 2005, was someone the Chinese government wanted the world to forget about. When he died, state television and newspapers only carried a terse one-line obituary for "Comrade Zhao", without mentioning his former titles.
But four years after his death, and 20 years after the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square, the man the authorities thought they had silenced forever is speaking from the grave.
"On the night of June 3, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire," Zhao says on one recording. "A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all."
The memoirs, which were secretly recorded during his house arrest, have been published abroad and are certain to be banned in mainland China. In them Zhao condemns the killings of protestors as a "tragedy" and rejects the official verdict that they were "anti-revolutionary rioters". He also confirmed the widely held view that paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the crackdown and said China must adopt democracy if it wanted to be a true modern society with the rule of law.
In the 30 hours of recordings, he also detailed the political tussles behind the Tiananmen crackdown, his battles with the conservative faction, how he and Deng differed in their principles - the conflict which eventually led to his downfall - as well as his views on market reform and democracy.
Zhao had made notes of his recollection of events in 1993, and urged by a few close friends, started to record his memoir in 2000, said Bao Pu, translator and editor of the details that have been put together into the book, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang.
"We can say for sure that he wanted his version of history to survive," said Bao, the son of Zhao's top aide Bao Tong, in a phone interview.
Zhao secretly recorded his words over music cassettes of children's songs and the Peking Opera without informing his family. He passed them onto a few trusted friends who kept them for him and the tapes were eventually taken out of the country. Zhao is said to have hidden his plan from his family to protect them.
Zhao's daughter, Wang Yannan, said her father clearly wanted to leave behind his version of history so people could learn the truth.
"He was [under house arrest] for more than a decade, he had reflected a lot about the past but he had no platform to speak out. I think he wanted to restore a truthful version of history and to put across his views for the record."
"I think he felt people had the right to know the truth ... and he had the responsibility to tell them," she said in a phone interview.
Although many of the facts from the Tiananmen crackdown in Zhao's memoir are now known to the outside world, analysts say the memoir nonetheless helped clarify some historical mysteries. It was also the first time that a Chinese official of his stature had spoken so candidly about his own political life and the struggles within the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
"I think the most important thing about this memoir is that it is the first time that Zhao has given in his own words an account of important meetings and course of discussions ... some of which had been subjects of speculation," said Chris Yeung, a political columnist at the South China Morning Post.
"It's the first time we've seen Zhao's version, so it's obviously authoritative."
Contrary to most reports, which suggest that the decision to dispatch troops was the result of a vote of three to two by the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, Zhao revealed in his memoir that there was no such vote and that Deng was influenced by hardliners such as then-premier Li Peng, and was ultimately responsible for the crackdown.
"It sheds light on the decision-making process of the Politburo Standing Committee at the time ... amid the crisis situation, it was Deng Xiaoping who made the important decision at the end of the day," Yeung said.
Zhao also highlights that Deng and himself had very different ideas on political reform. What Deng had in mind was more of an administrative reform aimed at shoring up one-party rule rather than democratization. This division perhaps explained why Deng later decided to drop his plan to have Zhao as his successor, said Yeung.
Zhao also contested the widely held view that Deng was the architect behind the market reforms which transformed China into an economic power house.
Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, wrote in the foreword to the book that Zhao rather than Deng should be credited as the originator of the reforms, as it was he who did much of the ground work.
For instance, it was Zhao who realized that the country's commitment to rural collectivization was outdated and embraced a national household responsibility system as the way to develop agriculture and raise farm incomes, MacFarquhar wrote. "Reading Zhao's unadorned and un-boastful account of his stewardship, it becomes apparent that it was he rather than Deng who was the actual architect of reform," MacFarquhar wrote.
But Zhao's central role in China's economic reforms could never be given any credit. When China celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, Zhao's name and images were banned from all state TV and publications. It is obvious the authorities were determined to airbrush him from their version of history.
To many China watchers, what was perhaps one of the most surprising and interesting revelations from the former Communist Party chief was his support for Western-style parliamentary democracy.
"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," Zhao says.
Otherwise, Zhao said, China would not be able to have a healthy and modern market economy but would see "commercialization of power, rampant corruption, a society polarized between rich and poor". As it turns out, his prediction proved to be sadly accurate.
Bao Pu believed this was one message that Zhao most wanted to put across.
"He acknowledged that whatever fault you can find with the Western-style [democratic] parliamentary system, there is no better system, that message came out quite clearly," Bao said.
Bao's father Bao Tong, who was Zhao's top aide, said current Chinese leaders should learn a lesson from Zhao's memoirs.
"[They should reflect] on many questions: how they should look at June 4 [Tiananmen crackdown], what policy should be implemented to avoid getting [further] into the current situation of a rich-poor gap and rampant corruption," said the senior Bao, who spent seven years in prison after the crackdown and still lives under tight surveillance.
"I think they can get the answer from this book."
But his message may fall on deaf ears. Responding to journalists' questions on Zhao's memoir, the Chinese Foreign Ministry this week reiterated the official position that China's economic success in the decades after the Tiananmen crackdown justified the act.
And Zhao's advice from the grave might not have come at the best time.
Ching Cheong, a veteran journalist who covered the pro-democracy movement in 1989, said since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and more recently the US financial crisis, China has been feeling increasingly justified about its so-called China model, which allows economic freedom but suppresses political freedom.
"Their opinion is that the Western way is not suitable for China," Ching said. "There is quite a gap between the conclusion of Zhao Ziyang and public opinion in China today."
"The chaos [in other countries] has been used to prove that the crackdown was necessary and that this system is good."
But Bao Tong, who was director of the Political Reform Bureau of the powerful Communist Party's Central Committee at the time of Zhao's leadership, warned that the failure to reflect on China's own mistakes would end in disaster.
"If we want to avoid another Cultural Revolution , we must learn from the West," Bao said. "To reject outright the Western political system is to say we want to keep alive the spirit of the Cultural Revolution, and this kind of thing will reoccur."
"If they did things Zhao Ziyang's way, solving problems through negotiations on a basis of democracy and rule of law, not only would the tragedy have been avoided ... it would have pushed China's political system to a new phase."
1. The Cultural Revolution was a period of widespread social and political upheaval; nation-wide chaos and economic disarray engulfed much of Chinese society between 1966 and 1976. It was launched by Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, on May 16, 1966, who alleged that liberal bourgeoisie elements were dominating the party and insisted that they needed to be removed through post-revolutionary class struggle by mobilizing the thoughts and actions of China’s youth, who formed Red Guards groups around the country. - Wikipedia
Verna Yu is a Hong Kong-based journalist.