Zhao Ziyang’s “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang” are the memoirs of the former Premier (1980 to 1987) and General Secretary (1987 to 1989) of the Communist Party of China (CPC), who was purged politically after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and placed under house arrest until his death in 2005, and in this vein three caveats should be established from the get-go. First, because these is a personal first-hand account, the narrative is likely to be biased. Second, these memoirs are based on thirty audio cassette tapes which Zhao recorded in secret, and hence in his stream of consciousness there were segments in which Zhao repeated events or evaluations of people. And third, since these recordings were translated, nuances were lost and some parts of the book were tedious to get through.
The second and third points were especially true in the middle of the book, when political developments in the Central Politburo (the core group which oversees the CPC), the different reforms and responses to the developments, and Zhao’s skirmishes with his rivals were documented. On the other hand, the chapters about the Tiananmen Square protests and the economic reforms were more illuminating. Respectively, they set out what happened behind the scenes in 1989 before China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and party elders resolved to use military force, and highlight Zhao’s prescient criticisms of the Chinese system.
On the Tiananmen Square protests: Zhao lost favour with Deng and was placed under house arrest after 1989, as he was criticised for his leniency towards the student demonstrators and his unwillingness to impose martial law, explaining that “I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on students”. The former General Secretary went on to detail the criticisms laid out by conservative officials in the CPC, identified an April 26 editorial in the CPC’s official newspaper as the turning point of the movement, and further insisted that: “The situation would have subsided if we had not interpreted the students’ actions as being anti-Party and anti-socialist, but had accepted their reasonable demands and had adopted measures of patient negotiation, dialogue, and reducing tensions”.
On economic reforms: Parts of the book – as Zhao recounted trips abroad to England, France, and Greece, for instance – read like an economics textbook extolling the benefits of free trade, globalisation, and the merits of the free market. Interspersed in these economic explanations are expositions of different positions held within the party, and the intense resistance he faced when he sought to implement new policies. Zhao did acknowledge genuine fears, perhaps rooted in history, as “people were afraid of being exploited [in economic relationships with foreigners], having our sovereignty undermined, or suffering an insult to our nation”, yet he emphasised the advantages of an open-door policy to China. “If a nation is closed, is not integrated into the international market, or does not take advantage of international trade, then it will fall behind and modernisation will be impossible”, he said.
His views on industrial development and competitiveness were no different too. “There was no vacuum in the international market and no commodity that the international market was lacking”, he added. “The issue was market share: how much you took up and how much I took up. The total volume would grow with world economic development and growth”.
“Prisoner of the State” ultimately provides a rare first-hand account of Chinese politics at the highest level, and even though the memoirs are an unfortunate conclusion to Zhao’s political career, the insights are fascinating. The descriptions confirmed perceptions that few dared to challenge Deng openly, and both Zhao and Hu Yaobang – General Secretary of the CPC from 1982 to 1987, who was forced to resign in 1987, and who died in 1989 – were lieutenants at the frontlines. Towards the end, Zhao identified and named the conservative faction in the CPC: Li Xiannian and Wang Zhen among party elders; and Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun in the ideological sphere. These were reminders that however well-intentioned Zhao was with his plans, getting around staunch political opposition was a tall order.