Zhao Ziyang’s Secret Journal

Today’s Wall Street Journal offers a few glimpses of what Zhao Ziyang’s posthumously published secret journal reveals about the evolution of his thinking. Both the English and Chinese editions are due to appear just in time for the 20th anniversary of the violent crackdown in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.

Zhao’s memoirs provide a rare insider’s view of debates among Chinese leaders, and they indict the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and the statist economic model. Zhao was initially a supporter of “soft authoritarianism.” But he understood the importance of economic reforms, which he implemented as a leader in Guangdong and then Sichuan province. His policies, which included giving land rights to farmers and lifting state production quotas, were so immediately successful that a popular description became, “If you want to eat, look for [Zhao] Ziyang.” Zhao also opened up the eastern coastal region to trade and development.

Only after his house arrest did Zhao conclude that a truly free economy also requires political liberalization, particularly a free press and independent judiciary. “If a country wishes to modernize, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentary democracy as its political system,” he wrote in his memoirs.

This represented a shift in his thinking. “I once believed that people were masters of their own affairs,” he wrote, “not in the parliamentary democracies of the developed nations in the West, but only in the Soviet and socialist nations’ systems with a people’s congress … This, in fact, is not the case. The democratic systems of our socialist nations are all just superficial; they are not systems in which the people are in charge, but rather are ruled by a few or even a single person.”

The WSJ’s Sky Canaves reports on how the book came about.

“Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang,” to be officially released this month in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster, is based on 30 hours of tapes recorded by Mr. Zhao before his death in 2005 and smuggled out of China. Mr. Zhao recorded over existing music cassettes while living under heavy surveillance and distributed them among various friends for safekeeping. The tapes were only recently collected, transcribed and translated for publication in book form. (Hear the audio excerpts and read the translations.)

The Malaysian Insider adds more perspective about the book’s authenticity from the Straits Times:

Analysts said that there is no doubt that the recordings are genuine — a major coup since previous “insider” accounts of the Tiananmen incident suffered from doubts on their authenticity.

“It was very prudent to record his memoirs on audio tapes. Even if you write it down, people can dispute if it was really his words. But when you hear his voice, it is definitely genuine,” said China elite politics watcher Bo Zhiyue of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, who had heard parts of the recordings uploaded online.

Hong Kong-based analyst Ong Yew Kim was struck by Zhao’s revelations that former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was not truly interested in democratisation.

Zhao presses the case that he advocated the opening of China’s economy to the world and Deng did not always fully support such moves.

“Many people had termed Deng a reformist. But now we know that his talk about democracy was just empty slogans,” he added.

But Dr Bo cautioned that it is premature to dismiss Deng’s role in China’s reform policies.

“Zhao Ziyang said he started the agriculture reform in Sichuan province. That is fair. But Wan Li did likewise in Anhui province and Deng brought both of them to Beijing,” he said, referring to a former vice-premier.

“This is Zhao Ziyang’s story. It may not be the whole story.” — Straits Times

And one of the translators and editors of the English edition, Bao Pu, describes the lead-up to Tiananmen.

The tragic turning point toward violence came when Mr. Li [Peng] maneuvered to publish Deng’s harsh comments about the protestors in a People’s Daily editorial on April 26. At this point, Mr. Li may only have boosted the antiliberalization agenda, and not foreseen the scale of the tragedy to come. When Zhao first heard of Deng’s remarks while on a state visit to North Korea, he wrote, “my first thought was that another campaign against liberalism might begin.”

But much to the government’s surprise, the students were shocked and insulted by the defamation of their motives and responded with the April 27 demonstrations, the biggest spontaneous student protest ever in modern China’s history. Zhao observed at this time “even the symbol of the paramount leader had lost its effectiveness.”

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Filed under biography, China, democracy, economics, publishing

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