An essay on the legacy of China's ousted late premier Zhao Ziyang by a top aide who knew him well.
HONG KONG—Bao Tong, an aide to China’s late premier Zhao Ziyang, served a
seven-year jail term after the deadly June 4, 1989 suppression of student-led
protests in and around Tiananmen Square. Twenty years later, Bao has released a
secretly recorded memoir in which Zhao shatters an official blackout on the
crackdown and calls for parliamentary democracy in China.
Following is an essay, serialized here and written for RFA’s Mandarin service from Bao’s house arrest in Beijing, in which Bao puts Zhao's memoir in context.
The Historical Background to the Zhao Ziyang Tapes by Bao Tong
Part 1: Why China had to reform
Zhao Ziyang left behind a set of audio recordings. These are his
Zhao Ziyang’s legacy is for all of China’s people. It is my job to transmit
them to the world in the form of words and to arrange things.
This is my political task. The value of these recordings will be for the
people of the world to debate. Their contents have implications for a history
that is still influencing the people of China to this day. The key theme of this
history is reform. On the mainland at the current time, this part of history has
been sealed off and distorted, so it will be useful to discuss some of this
history for readers who are still young.
It has been nearly 100 years since the  Revolution, and China is still
going in the direction of modernization. We are still evolving slowly, and still
developing. The invasion by Japanese imperialist forces impeded China’s
progress, but it couldn’t reverse our general direction.
But after the effective end of the civil war in 1949, there was a new
contract. Until then, the questions of how to continue with step-by-step
progress, how to modernize, and whether we wanted socialism or not, were all
still up for discussion. If we had really proceeded according to the “Collective
Guiding Principles” passed by the first plenary session of the Chinese People’s
Political Consultative Conference on Sept. 29, 1949, which included full general
elections and a “land to the tiller” policy, then things would have been fine.
It wouldn’t have been hard to sort out some of the other systemic problems in
China if we had solved those two big questions at the outset.
All it could do was to ensure that while some people starved to death, most people were just plain hungry."
The two movements that did succeed in completely reversing China’s direction
were the “Socialist Reconstruction” campaign of 1953-58 and the “Anti-Rightist”
campaign of 1957, which complemented each other. The former was modeled on
Chapters 11 and 12 of the “History of the Soviet Communist Party.” It was aimed
at the entire system and was a decision to move forward with collectivization,
nationalization, and a planned economy, with the ultimate goal of wiping out
private ownership and the market economy.
The latter was the result of the Chinese Communist Party following the will
of Mao Zedong under the direction of Deng Xiaoping, who was the chairman of the
working group set up to rectify the Party’s working spirit and oppose rightism
among its central leadership. They managed to find 550,000 “rightists” from
among China’s five million intellectuals. These two campaigns turned the screws
of Communist Party rule in China, and ran counter to democracy and the rule of
Once we had embarked on this road that called itself socialism, there was no
market economy, no land to the tiller, and no freedom. At the same time, we
broke with a large number of valuable and age-old Chinese traditions. But this
approach was inadequate in the face of the need to build the nation. All it
could do was to ensure that while some people starved to death, most people were
just plain hungry.
During the Mao era, only people who had an urban household registration card
could be sure of guaranteed rations. For example, citizens of Beijing and
Shanghai were limited to just under a pound of grain a day, while they were
allowed to eat a quarter pound of meat once every three days, and to purchase
enough cloth to make a new suit of clothes once a year.
But while Party and state claimed to love China’s peasants, who made up 80
percent of the population, and the urban youth who had been sent to the
countryside, they could do nothing to help them, and they were left to fend for
themselves and to haul themselves up by their own bootstraps.
The “socialism” of the Mao era left Chinese people dirt-poor and took them
off in the opposite direction from their dream of a modern country, which by
then was getting further and further away. Mao’s designated successor Chairman
Hua Guofeng had no choice but to proclaim the reality that “the national economy
is on the verge of collapse.” If this state of affairs had continued much
longer, the country would have followed suit. Such was the background to the
need for reforms.
Part 2: No reforms added to the remedy
What was the solution? As Wang Dongxing, a former bodyguard of Mao once said,
we must implement Chairman Mao’s decisions unswervingly and forever. Chairman
Hua Guofeng said the same. At that time, Chen Yun was revered as the highest
authority on economic matters in the Party.
He joined the politburo back in the 1930s, 20 years earlier than Deng
Xiaoping. He took responsibility for economic policy during the Yan’an era. Chen
was Mao’s first deputy prime minister in the days before the “Great Leap
Forward,” and as such was in charge of the national economy.
But Mao was suspicious of him, because he tended to seek truth from facts, so he sidelined Chen and decreed that the country should learn to make iron and steel with himself at the helm and Deng Xiaoping as his deputy, with disastrous results. Now, with Mao dead, Chen Yun’s prescription for China’s economy was “adjustments,” to proportion things better.
While Party and state claimed to love China’s peasants...and urban youth...they could do nothing to help them."
This was the crystallization of Chen’s experience. The “Great Leap Forward”
had caused the deaths of tens of millions from starvation. It was Chen Yun’s
“adjustments” to grain and steel production indices that brought order after the
tragedy. Chen Yun opposed the blind economic planning which the Party had been
engaged in, but he didn’t oppose the Party’s leadership of the economy.
Neither was he opposed to one-Party rule in politics or to total
nationalization and a planned economy, down to the total regulation of the
markets for grain, cotton cloth, and oil. That was a system he had painstakingly
put into place himself. To do away with those trappings of Maoism would be to do
away with Chen Yun himself.
We mustn’t be too simplistic when we analyze Chen Yun. He was the guardian of
state ownership, but he wasn’t the guardian of the communes. He preferred a
planned economy, but he didn’t much care for unrealistic production targets. He
was in favor of big government, but he also thought the markets should play an
auxiliary role. (“Large-scale collectivization; small-scale
He believed that the degree of economic freedom was analogous to a caged
bird, but he was against allowing the bird to perch on his hand. He believed in
the Soviet Union as the big boss, not in Western imperialism, and in
self-reliance and in not relying on imported grain.
Even in those times he was willing to testify with his head held high: “I
heard Chairman Mao say once that it’s all right to import grain,” stripping
“imported grain” at one stroke of its revisionist implications and
rehabilitating it as a logical requirement proceeding from Mao Zedong Thought.
He supported one-Party rule by the Communist Party, but he didn’t like it at all
when Mao himself dispensed with Party procedure and Party discipline. Zhao
Ziyang notes all of this in his memoirs, in an attempt to set the record
Another prestigious Party elder was Deng Xiaoping. Deng was Mao’s trusted
aide. This was because, before the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao’s
designated successor was Liu Shaoqi, so Deng could only be his assistant. At the
beginning of the Cultural Revolution, people who didn’t know the details were
speaking of Deng and Liu in the same breath. But Mao knew very well that the two
weren’t the same at all, and he didn’t hound Deng to death.
In his later years, Mao tried to confide in Zhou Enlai that as soon as Deng
began to align himself with Zhou, he lost Mao’s favor. Deng was once more
expelled from the Party leadership during the Cultural Revolution. But this had
the effect of raising him in the estimation of ordinary people, rather than
lowering him. After all, perhaps Deng Xiaoping would be the leader capable of
reforming the Maoist system?
History has shown that reform really meant doing away with the Maoist system altogether."
Deng’s remedy at that time didn’t include reforms, however, but
“rectification.” Rectification was aimed at [state-owned] enterprises and
leading cadres, seeking to replace officials who didn’t follow the leadership,
and in enforcing organizational discipline and an orderly system with firm
resolve, and to meet, or exceed, government production targets.
Rectification was Deng’s forte. In the later stages of the Cultural
Revolution, Mao set the “Gang of Four” to take charge of the revolution, while
Deng Xiaoping was to take charge of production. Deng didn’t understand
economics, but he used the methods of “rectification” to boost production
Deng’s strong point was that he was astute. He wasn’t at all muddle-headed or
circuitous. He had understood at a very early stage that socialist-style
planning was unlikely to rescue the economy from collapse. But he couldn’t risk
messing up the economy either. Neither could he take the risk of being labeled
an “anti-socialist.” And economics was never his home territory: He was a
politician, and that’s where his feet were firmly planted.
In March 1979, he gave a speech that went down in history, titled “Upholding
the Four Basic Principles”: Upholding the socialist road, the dictatorship of
the proletariat, the leadership of the Communist Party, and
Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Thought. That was Deng’s political line. One year later,
he went a step further by presenting the guiding principle which would enshroud
the 1980s in China, titled “The Situtation at Hand and the Tasks Before Us.” In
it, he laid out his terrain, talking about international relations and about
But the key point was modernization. How to modernize? This becomes clear if
you read that 34-page article in Vol. 2 of The Selected Works of Deng
Xiaoping. There are four kinds of medicine in Deng’s prescription. The first
is to proceed with dispatch. The second is to preserve stability and unity. The
third is that the struggle will be a hard one. And the fourth is that expertise
is needed, as well as revolutionary zeal.
Deng had thrown all of his political know-how into clearing up the mess left
behind after the death of Mao. He was building leadership and boosting morale.
But as late as January 1980, his blueprint for the 1980s still contained no
mention of reforms.
History has shown that reform really meant doing away with the Maoist system altogether. A failure to reform would mean doing endless somersaults, still trapped inside the Maoist system. It was a total dead end. But none of China’s leaders up until this point, not Hua Guofeng, not Wang Dongxing or Chen Yun, nor Deng Xiaoping, had included reforms in their prescribed solutions.
Part 3: Sichuan tries out reforms
In instigating reforms, it matters how they are implemented. Even more important is what exactly is to be reformed. Nobody, not even Deng Xiaoping or Chen Yun, was entirely clear about just what “systemic reforms” actually meant. Nobody among the central Party leadership could say for sure (or was willing to say) what this meant until economic reforms were first carried out experimentally in Sichuan. They talked a lot about it, but the question of collectivism versus fragmentation was a risky one.
Sichuan knew what it was about, though. There, they didn’t just talk about
reforms; they actually did something, and started to act in a cautious way. In
1976, Sichuan began to relax its policies. By 1978 it had expanded its reach
from politics to systemic changes, and had instituted an experiment in economic
reforms in the cities and the countryside. In the countryside, economic reform
consisted of giving the farmers more autonomy.
Now, “autonomy” isn’t quite as dazzling as “leadership rights,” “ownership
rights,” or “planning rights,” but it’s not as vague and unsteady as “zealous.”
If you are seen as “zealous,” then they will give you a handful of small change
as a bonus and that will be it.
If you talked about “ownership rights” or “planning rights,” then you would be branded a rebel in the eyes of any right-thinking member of society. Or perhaps you might just be unaware that “ownership rights” always belong to Joe Public, “planning rights” to the government, and “leadership rights” to the Party?
“Autonomy” is a moderate word. It’s clear, dependable, and that’s where they began, where it was possible to dissect the matter at great depth and to preserve stability at the same time. The phrases “autonomy of the farmers” and “the autonomy of [state-owned] enterprises” rested on the obvious premise that the farmers and state-owned enterprises (and not the state or the Party) were now the main agents of the rural and urban economies respectively.
This would also be the premise of market economics. The expansion of autonomy for farmers and enterprises was synonymous with a reduction in the power of government and Party to interfere with them.
In 1978, the Sichuan Party Committee, under the leadership of first secretary Zhao Ziyang, implemented a policy of experimental economic reforms, which consisted of an expansion of autonomy.
This was a substantive step towards bringing reforms into economic life. It was also was the first step of Zhao Ziyang’s journey on the path of reform. As a reformist, his mission was to promote the withdrawal of Party and state from the countryside and from [state-owned] enterprises.
To put it more clearly, “enforced administrative factors from outside the economy” were being made to give ground to “economic agents.” At the same time, Hu Yaobang was developing the vocabulary of “righting wrong and trumped-up cases” in his work of rehabilitation. Neither of these historic concepts was to be found in the canon of political works, but they started to spread like wildfire, and they made people think. They left an aftertaste.
Sichuan was the most populated province in China. It included the northern, southern, western, and eastern regions, together with what is now the municipality of Chongqing and parts of what was western Tibet under the 1911 Republic. One hundred million of China’s total population of 1 billion lived in Sichuan. Two thousand years of natural irrigation had turned the land into a sort of paradise.
In the 1960s, Mao Zedong had set up the “third line” production homefront in
an attempt to turn it into an industrial, military, and technological base.
During the “Great Leap Forward,” the first provincial Party secretary was a man
who cared more about the mood of Mao than he did about his people’s welfare.
Of the 30-40 million people who died of starvation from 1959-61, 10 million
of them were in Sichuan! Mao’s system had plunged Sichuan into poverty, and
boosting the autonomy of the farmers and the enterprises breathed new life into
Of course this wasn’t all the personal doing of the leadership at the time, but it was without doubt the manifestation of the leaders’ mindset. There was a folk saying at the time: “If you want to eat grain, go to Zhao Ziyang,” which spread as far as Beijing.
Party Central Organization Minister Hu Yaobang’s righting of wrong and trumped-up cases, together with the steady economic reforms being carried out by Sichuan first Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, were two bright spots that ordinary people had to talk about in those days.
Part 4: Entering the era of reform
In 1978-79, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang joined the politburo in close
succession. In February 1980, they both joined the standing committee, Hu as
General Secretary, and Zhao as the head of the Party central economic and
financial working group, deputy premier, and premier. Now we have reached the
era of reform covered in Zhao Ziyang’s memoir.
The economic reforms that Zhao had instituted in Sichuan would look like chicken feed compared with the scale of reforms that he would now roll out across the whole country.
But who could say for sure how to institute systemic reforms, and how this should happen? Those who might have known what to do had all been struggled out of existence since the 1950s. A series of successive “class struggle” campaigns carried out by Mao Zedong over several decades with the aim of wrecking the market economy had produced several generations of scholars and officials across China who had nothing but hatred and fear of a market economy.
Now, another 30 years have passed, and people are slowly beginning to realize
that economic reforms meant the reform of Mao Zedong’s system. But it’s strange.
In mainland China, people still only refer to this as reform, not as
de-Maoification. Reforms are to be praised, but de-Maoification is to be
reviled. This is how things stand, 30 years on.
If anyone had suggested reforming the Maoist system 30 years ago, they would undoubtedly have met the same fate as schoolteacher Zhang Zhixin and student Lin Zhao, and the reforms would have been choked off before they had even begun to put out shoots.
So, we proceeded step by step on the path of de-Maoification, that is to say, the path of the denial of Maoist economics. In 1978 it was “autonomy.” Three years later, in November 1981, Zhao Ziyang put forward a new perspective: “economic benefits.” He enumerated the economic growth figures from 1952-80. The total production figures for industry and agriculture had risen by a factor of 8.1 and national income by a factor of 4.2. Fixed assets in agriculture and industry had risen by a factor of 26.
So what had happened to the standard of living of ordinary people? After 28 years on the old road, this is the economic benefit we saw. Could we still refuse to take the new road? Another three years passed, and in 1984 we had the concept of a “commodity economy.”
At last, under Zhao Ziyang’s relentless work to promote it, this concept was allowed to stand in China; at last it had become legal! This “commodity economy,” which was able to gain legally acceptable status amid the political forces in operation at the time, was really just another word for “market economy.”
So now we touch upon the entire history of reform, the trials and
tribulations on the quest, the collaborations and the disagreements. All of them
are discussed in this book. This is the most in-depth account and the most
reliable history of this era that I have read to date.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah