History tells us that the degree to which dissent is tolerated is a measure of a government’s strength, not its weakness.”—Jon Meacham, “An Opportunity for Tehran” (Newsweek 20 July 2009)
For almost a month and a half, April through June 1989, the student movement in China enthralled both the people of China and the world at large. It seemed possible to dream of the beginning of some kind of democratic change in China.
Then in the early hours of 4 June the People’s Republic Army—the vast majority of the soldiers recruited from rural areas — ruthlessly crushed the unarmed students who were calling for transparency in government and the end of corruption in the economy. There is no clear or exact number on how many students were killed, but the estimates range from hundreds to thousands, and scores were arrested. A handful of student leaders managed to escape to the West.
Of course, we know this event today as The Tiananmen Square Massacre—a pivotal political event in the history of modern China and which the government of China continues to refuse to acknowledge to this day. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and Zhao Ziyang’s Prisoner of the State was published just one month in advance of the date. Ziyang’s posthumous memoir is his attempt to break the official silence and offer us a fascinating insider’s look at the confusion, bitter debates, and infighting about how the government should have responded to the student demonstrations.
The creation of the journals/memoir is a miracle in of itself. Premier Zhao Ziyang, the man who brought liberal change to that nation and who, at the height of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, tried to stop the massacre and was removed from office. Zhao was placed under house arrest shortly after the shootings on Tiananmen Square and remained so until his death in 2005. At some point in 2000, he began to dictate his memoirs, recording over the tapes of kids’ music and Peking Opera. The tapes were never overtly concealed and members of his family knew nothing of his project.
He gave several friends tapes of the first two years of work—each only given a small portion of the recordings—to prevent loss, destruction, or discovery. After his death the surviving tapes were slipped out of the country, transcribed, and published in the present book form. Intent on documenting facts and depicting events, we get very little of Zhao’s personal emotion. He prefers instead to show how emotion clouds judgment and decision making at a personal and political level. His meticulous story provides an insiders look at the workings of China’s government.
The demonstrations began with the death Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer who had been ousted from his position as Communist Party General Secretary two years earlier. His death set off a wave of public mourning and sympathy by the university students of Beijing. Zhao remarks that what ignited the student demonstrations was complicated, but could be narrowed down to three main points: Hu Yaobang’s popularity among the students and people, his demotion in 1987, and the lack of political reform coupled with stalled economic reform.
What further exacerbated the students in Zhao’s view was the initial response to the student protests. A 26 April editorial in the People’s Daily News labeled the student demonstrations as “ anti-Party, anti-socialist turmoil.” The editorial essentially set the stage between two competing views about the student demonstrations.
One camp, lead by Premier Li Peng, believed a tough uncompromising response was necessary before things got out of control. Zhao advocated a lenient approach based on dialogue and ‘to resolve the matter in a cool, reasonable, restrained, and orderly manner based on the principles of democracy and law.’ It was also Zhao’s view that the students essentially wanted to correct the Chinese communist system—not tear it down.
As an insider Zhao has an extraordinary faith in party regulations, and on more than one occasion he appeals to party rules and law to make his case. Sadly he fails, or perhaps refuses, to see that power, in its desire to preserve itself, cares little for law.
Prisoner of the State shows us how both camps worked to impress their views on Deng Xiaoping, the undisputed leader of China at the time. Zhao writes that people ‘backstabbed’ his position in the party because they had their own agendas and ambitions or were motivated by an uncompromising ideological principles; sometimes one motivation worked to cover the other.
On 19 May 1989 a few weeks before the troops arrived, Zhao tried unsuccessfully to convince the students to go home to their schools and families. He sensed a bad ending was fast approaching. At that time, however, the students simply could not conceive of the brutal treatment in store for them at the hands of their own government. They naively thought that economic reform surely includes political reform. Ordinary people had covertly brought them food and drink; they had managed to last over a month with little consequences. Their support seemed to be gaining momentum.
When martial law was declared, Zhao resigned before the shooting began, refusing to have the blood of students on his hands. Shortly after the massacre he was placed under house arrest and investigated for his role in the political crisis.
The rest of the book is devoted to describing Zhao’s previous important role in moving China’s economy away from the Soviet style five-year plan to the free market system we know today as the “Chinese miracle”. His signature reform was ‘efficiency’ and increased productivity for goods people really wanted —not just what the system created then stockpiled.
Zhao’s memoir also suggests that the hardliners missed an opportunity to move forward in creating a new rule of law and democracy, or at the least to begin loosening the restricting political strings that binds so tightly around Chinese society. Soon afterward, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was all the proof the Chinese leadership needed to show what happens when ‘pro-democracy’ demonstrations are allowed to go unchecked.
Prisoner of the State provides an excellent history lesson that should be impressed upon one’s mind, much like the famous image of a solitary man standing in front of a line of tanks at Tieneman Square. The courage of that unknown man, of all the demonstrators, should not be forgotten.
Indeed, it is equal to the stunning courage and awe-inspiring acts of civil disobedience we are seeing by the people in Tehran today.