Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, Translated by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang & Adi Ignatius; Simon & Schuster; US$26.00
The memoirs of Zhao Ziyang were released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the violent crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square. There is no denying the significance of the June 4 movement in the former vice president’s life: His attempts to avert the tragedy cost him his career and his liberty. And yet Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang sheds very little light on this landmark event. Zhao himself only learned of the violence the way thousands of others did, when the sounds of gunshots reached his home.
The limited amount of space Zhao devotes to the Tiananmen incident focuses on his role ahead of June 4, explaining how he was outmaneuvered by party hardliners and sidelined from the decision-making process. He offers insight into how the Chinese government operates at the top level and this, not recollections of the crackdown, is both the book’s hallmark and its enduring theme.
Ousted from office
Prisoner of the State was mostly transcribed from 20-plus of recordings made in secret by Zhao – who was kept under a loose form of house arrest – before his death in 2005.
Zhao stresses that he was a strong proponent of keeping open the lines of communication between the government and the protesting students. At first, other party elders appeared to agree with him, but the tables turned while Zhao was out of the country on a planned trip to North Korea. On his return, Zhao found that his opponents had positioned themselves alongside Deng Xiaoping and he had been painted as ineffective at best or a traitor to the party at worst.
Legal arguments feature strongly in Zhao’s account. He was eventually stripped of his titles with little legal foundation, he claims. And, if his dismissal from government was illegal, so was confining him to his home. Before that, even, meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee were convened without him – an illegal act given that, as general secretary of the party, he was supposed to chair these meetings.
The performance of these "illegal" acts fits in well with Zhao’s portrayal of China’s leaders as "acknowledging neither laws nor heavenly constraints." He describes time and again how some top officials treated the country as a fiefdom, regardless of checks and balances. He learned firsthand that his fate was not really associated with laws or regulations but in the hands of a small group – perhaps even one man (first Deng Xiaoping and later Jiang Zemin) – that wanted to create a united front among the party leadership.
This creates an obvious problem with accountability and chips away at the faith top leaders seek to build up. The result is insidious mistrust in the system: No matter how much the country moves forward, trust only goes so far. Zhao’s solution is the introduction of parliamentary democracy.
After June 1989, Zhao played no official role in the development of the country. His last political acts were couched in failure to strike the right tone, foresee how his enemies would sideline him or alter the course of events. After this, his battles were limited to securing golf trips or getting visitors past the guards stationed at his home.
Consequently, Zhao’s memoirs are not an insider’s take on what has happened since then but a portrait of Chinese bureaucracy as he knew it – the political struggles that result in conflicting interests, contradictory policies and regulations crafted from compromise rather than need. Zhao puts forward changes that must be made if China is to continue along its successful path; but at the same time it is ironic that the economic reforms he helped engineer a generation ago have given China sufficient political clout to overcome the foreign relations challenges that arose from the 1989 crackdown.
Regardless of his earlier importance, Zhao was experienced enough to know that, at his level, nothing is black and white and political support often counts for more than the moral right or wrong. The price he paid for losing at politics was being deprived of a public voice. Prisoner of the State provides that voice, albeit years after the fact.
It is unlikely that the book will make much of a difference to China’s policy makers but it serves to flesh out the historical debate as well as offering a peek behind the veil at life at the pinnacle of Chinese politics.