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China's Zhao Details Tiananmen Debate
Posthumous Memoir Castigates Party

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

[Eds. note: This story has been translated into Chinese and is available here.]

Zhao Ziyang violated one of the central tenets of Communist Party doctrine: He spoke out. But it is only now, four years after his death, that the world is hearing what he had to say.

In a long-secret memoir to be published in English and Chinese next week, just in time for the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the former head of the Chinese Communist Party claims that the decision to impose martial law around Beijing in May 1989 was illegal and that the party's leaders could easily have negotiated a peaceful solution to the unrest.

The posthumous appearance of Zhao's memoir, which he dictated onto audiotapes and the publisher has titled "Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang," marks the first time since the establishment of the People's Republic of China 60 years ago that a senior Chinese leader has spoken out so directly against the party and its system.

Reaching from the grave, Zhao pillories a conservative wing of the party for missteps that led to the bloody crackdown, which began after dark on June 3, 1989, and left hundreds dead. Few in China's leadership at the time escape Zhao's criticism. He castigates Deng Xiaoping, the man credited with opening China to the West and launching its economic reforms; Li Peng, the dour premier at the time of the Tiananmen tragedy; Deng Liqun, a hard-line party theoretician; Li Xiannian, a former president; and even Hu Yaobang, Zhao's longtime ally, whose death on April 15, 1989, touched off the student-led protests.

But Zhao's memoir also constitutes a broader challenge to the generally accepted version of history, especially in China, that places Deng at the center of the economic reforms that have turned China into a global economic power. While acknowledging that none of the reforms "would have been possible without Deng Xiaoping's support," Zhao depicts Deng as more of a benevolent godfather than a hands-on architect. Much of the critical design -- such as dismantling agricultural communes, mapping out China's hugely successful export-led growth model and conjuring up ideological sleights-of-hand that allowed China's Communists to embrace capitalism -- was left to Zhao. In China, Zhao's role in the momentous economic changes and political events that led up to the Tiananmen crackdown have been airbrushed from history. "Prisoner of the State" is his attempt to place himself back in the picture.

"Reading Zhao's unadorned and unboastful account of his stewardship, it becomes apparent that it was he rather than Deng who was the actual architect of reform," wrote Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, in a foreword to the book.

'Oblivion Through Silence'

It has long been known from numerous accounts that Zhao opposed the decision to suppress the student-led demonstrations but was overruled by China's other top leaders. Purged from his post as general secretary of the Communist Party just days before the crackdown, Zhao spent the next 16 years, until his death in 2005, as the most prominent "nonperson" in the world -- "consigned," as he says in the memoir, "to oblivion through silence."

Under virtual house arrest, in 1999 he secretly started making cassette recordings with friends, according to Bao Pu, one of the editors of the memoir for the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Bao Pu is the son of Bao Tong, a top political aide to Zhao who was jailed for six years after the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. Over the course of a year or so, the younger Bao said in an interview, Zhao recorded roughly 30 tapes in a game of cat-and-mouse with security agents stationed at his home in a courtyard in central Beijing.

Initially, Zhao made the tapes on the rare occasions he was allowed to leave his home. But that proved perilous, because each time Zhao ventured out, he was wrapped in a security bubble and confronted at his destination by more police. So Zhao continued the project at home, passing completed tapes to trusted visitors. Bao Pu first learned of the tapes following Zhao's death on Jan. 17, 2005; it took several years to amass all of them and to gain permission from people close to Zhao to publish the memoir, he said.

"Prisoner of the State" may enrage China's Communist leaders, who, despite their nation's economic success, remain vigilant against any potential challenge to the party's legitimacy. When Zhao died, party leaders convened emergency meetings to ensure that his death would not touch off pro-democracy demonstrations or a renewed debate about the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square. TV and radio were barred from reporting the death. Newspapers could use only a one-sentence obituary that referred to Zhao as "comrade."

Party Miscalculations

Central to Zhao's memoir is his depiction of Deng, the power behind the opening of China to the West. Zhao describes Deng as a "mother-in-law" riding herd over senior officials constantly battling for his attention, particularly during the nasty and often petty competition between China's leaders in the run-up to the Tiananmen crackdown.

China's official explanation of the bloodshed is that, with hundreds of thousands of people occupying the central square in Beijing, the situation bordered on chaos and the party had no real choice but to clear the square by force. Zhao's counterpunch is that bumbling moves by the hard-liners, led by Li Peng, created the chaos.

Following Hu Yaobang's death on April 15, 1989, students who believed that conservatives in the party had unfairly treated the more liberal Hu began demonstrating. Zhao took a soft line against the protests and, he says in the book, they started to die down. Then, on April 26, while Zhao was visiting North Korea, Li Peng masterminded a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee during which Li and others convinced Deng that the protests threatened the party. Li then ordered publication of an editorial in the People's Daily that termed the protests "premeditated and organized turmoil with anti-Party and anti-socialist motives."

Li thought the editorial would cower participants, Zhao says. Instead, "those who were moderate before were then forced to take sides with the extremists," and the marches ballooned to more than 10,000 people in Beijing and spread nationwide. On his return to China, Zhao attempted to make peace with the protesters, offering dialogue with student groups and the establishment of a special commission to investigate corruption charges.

But, Zhao says, "Li Peng and others in his group actively attempted to block, delay and even sabotage the process."

Zhao requested a meeting with Deng to try to convince China's leader that they needed to retract the April 26 editorial. On May 17, he went to Deng's home, thinking it was going to be a private meeting. Instead, the whole Politburo Standing Committee was present. Zhao advocated modifying the editorial. President Yang Shangkun suggested imposing martial law. Ultimately, Deng decided on martial law; there was no vote, according to Zhao.

The question of whether the Politburo's five-member Standing Committee took a vote is the only place where Zhao's version of events clashes significantly with the one provided in "The Tiananmen Papers," a collection of party documents published in 2001 that is considered the most definitive previous account of the crackdown. "The Tiananmen Papers" reported that there was a split vote of 2 to 2, with one abstention, and that retired Communist Party leaders were called in to decide.

Zhao's contention is that because there was no vote, the crackdown was illegal, even by the party's own rules. And once again, he notes, the hard-liners around Li Peng miscalculated. The martial law declaration prompted even bigger protests.

"A more intense confrontation was made inevitable," Zhao says. "On the night of June 3rd while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all."

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