Bao Pu, the son of Bao Tong, a top aide to late premier Zhao Ziyang, and editor of Zhao’s recently published memoir Prisoner of the State, spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong today.
Bao junior (Bao senior, who lives under house arrest in Beijing, is currently on a government-sponsored tour in south China) appeared to lack confidence at the beginning of his address, although he later gathered momentum. Perhaps he is naturally shy. But at the same time, one got the sense that, however passionate Bao may feel about the reforms Zhao stood for, this isn’t his story. He is the editor (alongside his wife, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius), not the author. As such, the attention that comes with the book doesn’t seem to sit comfortably with him, despite the years he and the others spent bringing Zhao’s words to print.
Bao witnessed the events of 1989 first hand (he recalls them in this interview with the Financial Times; and his father was recently the subject of a very good "Tea with the FT" piece), but his address was devoted to Prisoner of the State.
He spoke first about the conditions in which Zhao, who had been under house arrest since 1989, recorded his memoirs. With government minders in close attendance, the deposed premier and his wife visited a friend’s house in Beijing. Once the door was closed – the minders keeping watch outside – a recording device was brought out. Zhao tinkered with the device (his familiarity with electronics was born of necessity as his wife was so suspicious of them that she wouldn’t even switch on the television) and then placed it under the coffee table so that the minders wouldn’t see it if they walked in. Then he began to talk.
The events that led to Zhao’s removal from office and their bloody aftermath in Tiananmen Square are just one part of Prisoner of the State. The book is as much an explanation of how politics worked in China during his time at the top: the autocracy, the corruption, the contradictory policies, the infighting, the overriding desire for consensus. Bao placed Zhao’s keenness for reform – but not at the expense of the socialist system – in the context of the prevailing political environment and the social needs of the time.
I was fortunate enough to be seated opposite Bao’s wife, Renee Chiang, during the event. (She was slightly perplexed to find that her place card read "Mrs Pu," not "Mrs Bao" or, most appropriately, "Ms Chiang" – you’d think the FCC might have mastered Chinese names by now.) She and her husband have been running their own small publishing company for a number of years, releasing various political works concerning Zhao. Obviously, nothing has matched the attention garnered by Prisoner of the State.
The English version of the book, published by Simon & Schuster, currently sits at number 13 on the New York Times best-seller list. But Chiang said finding a publisher for the Chinese version was much more difficult. One New York publisher turned them down, saying the book was "too boring," and when they eventually reached an agreement with a Hong Kong publisher, the print run was limited. Once released, the book quickly sold out and the publisher – now fully aware that it has struck gold – is hustling to get more copies on the shelves.