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
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
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.
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.