What China Might Have Been

Speaking from the grave, a remarkable Chinese political figure is calling for drastic changes in the Communist Party, including the elimination of the post of party chief, the abolition of party branches in ministries and companies, the introduction of independent trade unions and direct popular election of officials up to the city level.

In life, Zhao Ziyang, who was prime minister and party general secretary for nine years until he was purged after he refused to sanction the crackdown and massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, was an unpleasant reality for Beijing, a popular reformer who was kept under house arrest until he died in January 2005.

In death, he is responsible for one of the most outspoken documents to come out of China since 1949 – a 300,000-word record of Zhao’s conversations from 1991 to 2004 with a close friend during his captivity. The Chinese language book, which appeared in Hong Kong bookstores this month, is called “Zhao Ziyang: Captive Conversations.”

It is almost unimaginable that the book will be allowed into the mainland.

Had his prescriptions been followed, today’s China might be a far different place. There would have been no all powerful Jiang Zemin and no similarly iron-handed Hu Jintao. Media would be freer, local elections a matter of routine and workers able to negotiate with their employers. The Communist Party would be in power but as an organization with more accountability to the people it governs.

“For China to modernize, it must move toward democratic politics,” Zhao says in a 1994 conversation recorded in the book. “This gives me great inspiration. In the East, be it Taiwan or South Korea, countries have moved from dictatorships to parliamentary democracy and many parties. This is a trend which is irresistible and no country can be an exception.”

It is the first time since the party was founded in 1921 that a senior leader has given an honest, uncensored account of his life and opinions. It is the more stunning because, unlike all but one previous party general-secretary dismissed from office, Zhao refused to recant and admit his mistakes, which is why his successors detained him at his courtyard home in Beijing and cut him off from the world.

Selected works by other party leaders have been carefully edited by official censors before being published and are trimmed to meet the party orthodoxy of the day.

The author of the book, Zong Fengming, 87, a party member since 1938 who rose to senior official posts has reportedly been pressured by the authorities since the book's publication. From 1991 to 2004, Zong visited Zhao more than 100 times, posing as a teacher of Qi Gong. While Zhao spoke, Zong took notes and collected them at home, before having them published by the Kaifang (Open) magazine of Hong Kong.

Mainland authorities have told Zong to get the book off the shelves, according to the South China Morning Post.

"They [the officials] wanted me to sign a guarantee that I would co-operate with them," 87-year-old Zong said, according to the Post. "But I refused although I admitted that I am the author of the book." It is unclear what action, if any, they will take against him.

In the post-Mao era, Zhao was the most important Chinese leader after Deng Xiaoping, introducing reforms in agriculture, industry and ownership that form the basis for the economy’s success over the last 25 years. The two men worked closely together until the tragedy of 1989.

Deng supported martial law and the use of the military to end the student protest: “A Communist Party that does not crush the masses is certainly not a Marxist Communist Party,” he once said.

Zhao opposed martial law and said that negotiations were the only way to end the stand-off with the students. “A Communist Party that crushes the masses is certainly not the Communist Party wanted by the Chinese people,” he retorted.

After the bloodbath, Zhao was ordered to admit his mistakes, as is normal with dismissed leaders. After asking his family if they would bear the consequences of his refusal and receiving their support, he refused to change his views. As punishment, he was detained until his death on January 17, 2005, probably from multiple strokes. As a ‘banned’ person, his writings and photograph never appeared in the official media.

In the book, Zhao says that his greatest regret was not to implement reforms of the political system outlined by Deng, a strong supporter of Zhao until the protests of spring 1989. “I apologize to the people for leaving so much unfinished.”

By this, Zhao means abolishing the post of general-secretary of the Communist Party and replacing it with a one-year rotating chairmanship by members of the Politburo’s standing committee. He considered that the post gave too much power to one person and perpetuated the cult of the personality.

He proposed splitting the government from the party by abolishing party offices in government ministries and companies, and making public the drawing up of the budget, the operations of government.

“The party has far too many branches, interfering in the government and civic organizations,” he tells Zong on July 30, 1994. “The party even interferes in all aspects of an individual’s life, even his private life.”

He also proposes independent trade unions and farmers’ organizations, freedom of speech, direct elections for village, county and city leaders and more democracy within the party.

He says that China cannot adopt the U.S. system of three branches of power nor a western-style parliamentary system, because the Communist Party must retain its leading role. If it fell, there would be a power vacuum and chaos. But under that condition, “we must diversify our economic, political and social life and allow the expression of all kinds of different opinions. Having a single opinion is no longer possible.

With hindsight, Zhao regrets that he did not use his time in power, from 1980 to 1989, a period of relative social stability during which the economy was growing at a rapid pace, to implement such reforms.

After 1989, the hard-line wing of the party won and thousands of officials and academics sympathetic to Zhao were purged or exiled. Supported by Deng, the hard-liners decided that political reform and liberalization of the media threatened the party’s survival and went the other way, a policy intensified by Hu Jintao, who became party chief in 2002.

In a foreword to the book, one of Zhao’s strongest supporters, Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui, shares his view on the military crackdown. “The result of Deng’s decision has been to create a market economy that is steeped in corruption, a capitalism in which high officials have unlimited power, leading to the trading of power for money and social injustice,” he writes. “This has exacerbated conflicts in society, between officials and the public, rich and poor, city and countryside. If these conflicts develop, it could create all kinds of social crises.”

Those conflicts can be seen almost daily in modern China as workers, intellectuals, writers and others push the boundaries of an all-powerful Communist Party resistant to change and fearful of its own political future despite the country’s remarkable economic progress.

Had the Party taken the Zhao road to change it might now be reaping the benefits of a system more in keeping with the demands of a modernizing society. But all we have for now are the words of a dead man dishonored by the government he served.