The secretly recorded memoirs of the Chinese Communist party leader who was pushed out for siding with the students during the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square have been released four years after his death.
In tapes secretly recorded during his 16 years under house arrest, Zhao Ziyang, the former head of the Communist party, denounced the killing of protesters as a "tragedy", and challenged the party's subsequent rejection of democratic reforms.
The tapes were smuggled out of China and will be published in English and Chinese this month – as Prisoner of the State: The secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang – days before the 20th anniversary of the massacre.
In them, he praised western-style democracy and insisted that the activists were not attempting to overthrow the system, according to extracts obtained by Reuters.
"On the night of June 3rd , while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire," wrote Zhao, according to Reuters. "A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted."
He added: "I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system."
Economic and political reforms had led to increasing struggles between hardliners and reformists in the party leadership. The 1989 demonstrations raised the stakes and pushed the arguments to their climax.
When Deng Xiaoping, who held power behind the scenes, backed hardliners and the leadership agreed to impose martial law, only Zhao dissented.
"I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the [Communist party] general secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on students," he said in the memoirs.
He also looked to the future in his recordings, praising western parliamentary democracy, and warning: "If we don't move toward this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy."
Zhao, who was kept under intense surveillance at his home after his downfall and whose excursions and visitors were vetted, recorded his memoirs in such secrecy that even family members were unaware of his project.
He recorded about 30 hours, on Peking Opera [school] and children's music tapes, in or around the year 2000. The 30 tapes were later smuggled out of China by three former high-ranking officials.
"People thought Zhao was probably broken and bitter and at the very least had so much surveillance there was no way he could have offered his final word on Tiananmen. But he had – and nobody knew," Adi Ignatius, one of the editors of the English language edition, told the Guardian.
"It will remind people that Tiananmen did not have to end up as it did; it was a power struggle at the top level – nothing to do with putting down a violent rebellion."
Concerns over news of the project leaking were so great that publishers Simon and Schuster listed it as Untitled by Anonymous in their catalogue.
"There was real concern about security, because if Chinese officials had found out early they would have used whatever means they had to make sure this didn't appear. It wasn't just commercial reasons," Ignatius added.
Although the book is certain to be banned on the mainland, Ignatius said he believed some of its content would spread through the internet or bootleg editions.
Bao Pu, the Hong Kong-based publisher of the book's Chinese edition and son of Zhao's former top aide, said: "There were no instructions [but] the fact he did this shows very clearly that he wanted his version of the story to survive.
"The material was very dense; he had actually prepared before he started recording and we think he had a draft [text] from as early as 1993."
He added: "I hope it will have a direct impact on politics in China; politicians are going to be reading this and reflecting."
Bao's father, Bao Tong, the most senior official jailed over the 1989 protests, told Reuters: "I think it will cause party members to reflect deeply. I think it's slightly more likely that senior leaders would read this book. It will give them a lot to think about, and cause them to think about the party's basic survival."
He said he was "100% certain" the voice on an audio recording was Zhao's. Reuters gave him earphones so he could listen to excerpts during an interview at a Beijing hotel restaurant, to which he was followed. He lives under round-the-clock surveillance in the Chinese capital. Zhao's family declined requests for interviews.
The memoirs will also shape the legacy of Deng. Although Zhao was nominally the highest-ranking party official, Deng remained in de facto control behind the scenes, as the leader among the party elders.
"Deng had always stood out among the party elders as the one who emphasised the means of dictatorship. He often reminded people about its usefulness," says Zhao, in a rebuttal of the idea that Deng was swayed by hardliners in 1989.
Deng's notions of democracy "were no more than empty words", he suggested, according to Reuters.
Ignatius said the book also showed the depth of Zhao's role in creating economic reforms for which Deng has received credit.