Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs – time to update Chinese history?
When Zhao Ziyang died on 17th January 2005, the Chinese authorities’ official response was muted, with a distinctly vague and brief obituary produced. Yet the fact this was all Chinese newspapers were allowed to publish, bar those in Hong Kong, and that online tributes were immediately deleted showed that the government knew Zhao’s importance was much greater than a handful of words.
It’s no secret that influential members of the Chinese Communist Party tried to write Zhao out of modern Chinese history. Given Zhao’s treatment after losing power in 1989, being placed under indefinite house arrest without trial (with only a relatively small number of opportunities to leave his residence), the elite could hardly trumpet his achievements. But it was undeniable that he played a great role in China’s modern economic growth. Whilst Deng Xiaoping is often accredited with being the visionary behind it, Zhao has been acknowledged as the man who actually made change happen. As the old saying went, “yao chi liang, zhao Ziyang” (“if you want to eat, seek Ziyang”). He had his failings, to be sure, but so have all great leaders. If the CCP can still officially hail Mao Zedong as 70% good and 30% bad, despite the disasters of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and many other projects he had a hand in, I think Zhao’s mistakes can be put to one side.
Zhao’s new memoirs are thus a god-send to anyone who really wants to understand the man and his contribution towards modern China. Any set of memoirs may exaggerate someone’s successes, but given Zhao’s inability to speak for himself during his life, being able to read his side of the story now is very important. A series of extracts can be found in this article.
One interesting point is that there was apparently no vote to bring in marital law – Deng appeared to have made the decision by himself.
“I had no other choice but to express my views to Deng personally, in a face-to-face meeting. Since I had asked for a personal meeting with Deng, only to have Deng call for a full Standing Committee meeting at his home, I realised that things had already taken a bad turn…..
While I was expressing my view, Deng appeared very impatient and displeased.
“In the end, Deng Xiaoping made the final decision. He said: ‘Since there is no way to back down without the situation spiralling completely out of control, the decision is to move troops into Beijing and impose martial law’.”
The memoirs also state that the meeting was in violation of the Party Charter because Zhao, as the general secretary, should have chaired it but was not.
This could be one further reason why the Chinese political elite does not want open discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. It is one thing for a government to make a difficult decision in a legal manner and quite another to have it made by a figure who doesn’t have the authority to do so and in a way that violates formal procedure (and could thus be regarded as illegal). Furthermore, the allegation that hardliners pushed for the crackdown as a means of attacking Zhao would damage the assertion that the security operation that was carried out was in China’s best interests.
Another revelation is Zhao’s attitude on political reform. On some occasions it was said or implied he was a democrat. Whilst being much more liberal than many of his counterparts, it was also true that he believed in the CCP during office and does not appear to have supported ending the one-party state. However, after 1989, his views changed.
“It is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. This system is currently the best one available. It is able to manifest the spirit of democracy and meet the demands of a modern society.
“If a country wishes to modernise, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentary democracy as its political system. Otherwise, this nation will not be able to have a market economy that is healthy and modern, nor can it become a modern society with a rule of law.”
“If we don’t move toward this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China’s market economy: issues such as an unhealthy market, profiting from power, rampant social corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor will the rule of law ever materialise.
“If the final destination is a parliamentary democracy, the ruling Party must achieve two breakthroughs. One is to allow other political parties and a free press to exist. This can happen gradually, but it must be pursued. The second breakthrough is having democracy within the Party: that is, the Party needs to adopt democratic procedures and use democratic means to reform itself … Different opinions must be allowed to exist, and different factions should be made legitimate.”
Doubtlessly his time under house arrest allowed him to experience some of the downsides of an autocratic political system. Ironically had he not been purged and allowed to retire quietly I do not think he would have formed these views, nor would he have gone to such trouble to have them published.
It is hard to know how concerned the authorities will be at the release of this work. They won’t panic, though they will at least initially work hard to stop copies circulating and people reading it online – officially its distribution will be banned. But they seem to have tried hard to stop this information getting out – this has to be condemned. For whilst Zhao might have had “uncomfortable truths” to tell, I have a feeling that had they been intercepted they would not have been preserved for publication later. Zhao had every right to speak, and now he has the government might as well have let him pass his story on outside of China for prosperity. Are senior CCP members so vain as to believe the rhetoric about 100 years of continuous rule such that the memoirs could hurt them, or do they simply wish to have history seen and taught as they see fit? Either way, they should be ashamed of themselves.
The last point I want to leave with you is Zhao’s comment on how China’s economic growth came about. In his view, “society’s rulers claim they have lifted millions from poverty, but in truth the millions have lifted themselves, through hard work and long hours, and in the process they have catapulted the elite to unprecedented levels of opulence and economic power.” This is an argument that China’s elite does not like (whatever they may say in public), because their position is based on the premise that without them there can be no prosperity. To acknowledge it is to admit that Chinese economic growth, at least until recently, had more to do with the hard work of the Chinese people than the “wise” leadership of the people currently in charge and thus they are not as indispensable as they would like people to think they are.
Zhao could have blown his own trumpet in this respect, keeping the mantra that the people at the top have “gifted” wealth on those below them and promoting himself as the chief architect of China’s growth who should be praised accordingly. Instead, he credits ordinary people for driving the country forwards. That says something about the man. However, I do think that the memoirs should help give Zhao the place in history he deserves. As I mentioned earlier he has been given some credit for the economic boom, but is it sufficient? Was Deng the visionary and Zhao the person who put it into practice, or was Deng merely the enabler, the backer who gave the support to Zhao’s plans when people like Li Peng kept trying to derail them? In reading his story it may be easier to appreciate his true role in China’s development.
This is clearly an important work to read for those with an interest in modern Chinese history. We can only hope that it will be openly available in China in the not-too-distant future.
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