Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Prisoner of the State: Zhao Ziyang

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Zhao Ziyang, who practically died in obscurity under house arrest in Beijing.

However, he left behind a series of 30 cassette tapes, recording his thoughts of what happened when he was Premier and General Party Secretary, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and his boss, Deng Xiaoping in Prisoner of the State which came out in May and is banned in the Chinese mainland.

His secretary, Bao Tong describes Zhao as a rising star who had successfully administered Guangdong and later his home province of Sichuan, where he restructured the rural economy and dramatically raised agricultural production. Bao also says that "Zhao possessed the political skill of not standing out too much, which helped him rise to the top without causing much commotion or upsetting hard-liners."

Under Deng, Zhao and Hu Yaobang, another reformer, tried to change things, to make the government more tolerant of criticism or of alternative views because they were tired of the political upheaval in the Mao years. However, once Hu and Zhao made mistakes, the hardliners would immediately pounce on them for pushing reforms too quickly.

In Prisoner of the State, Zhao brings up the names of Chen Yun and Li Xiannian several times: Chen was a Party elder who, according to Bao, "believed that the Communist Party should remain loyal to its founding ideology and pursue Soviet-style socialism." Meanwhile Li wanted to maintain status quo and was not ready to accept capitalism.

In the beginning of the book Zhao remembers what happened on the evening of June 3, recalling how he was sitting in the backyard enjoying the summer evening breeze when he heard pop sounds coming from Tiananmen Square. That was when he knew things were going to be bad. But he had tried hard to prevent it.

He tells in the book that as General Party Secretary he refused to be the one who sanctioned troops to enter the square and shoot at innocent people; he recalls how he was politically overridden by Deng and the hardliners like Li Peng, but how this was unconstitutional. It's as if Zhao thinks these technicalities should have been respected which is strange considering the government wanted to preserve its power and didn't care much about following the rules.

Zhao also outlines a number of his successful policies, including the development of the coastal areas first, with rural labour moving to the urban areas to create an export-oriented market. He also encouraged more imports to help ease pressure on farmers who were practically starving to feed the state. However he probably didn't realize this opening up would also lead to a number of social issues especially around migrant workers that the country is dealing with now at a snail's pace.

Another interesting thing he mentions is that in 1988, Hainan Province was supposed to be designated a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) like Shenzhen was in 1992. Considering the central government is pushing this initiative now over 20 years later without giving Zhao credit is even more intriguing. What would he think of that?

Despite all the reforms Zhao tried to make, the hardliners were always in the way, interfering ideologically and in the end undoing all the work he'd done and moving back to state-run policies that set back the country's development by several years. He fought back with creative vague phrases too, which shows how empty people's words can be in politics.

But most interesting is reading the end of the book where Zhao talks about the importance of China eventually evolving into a democracy. He observes that many modern progressive nations use the parliamentary system and while he says it isn't completely perfect, it is the best solution now politically, economically and socially.

I once believed that people were the masters of their own affairs, 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, making the latter system more advanced and a better-realized form of democracy.

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.

He warns that China needs to move ahead political reforms or "it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy: issues such as an unhealthy market, profiting from power, rampant social corruption, and a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor will the rule of law ever materialize. In order to resolve these problems, we must in concrete terms conduct political reform with this as our goal."

Zhao emphasizes that the Communist Party cannot make an abrupt exit, but gradually give way to allow other political parties in.

As for how long the Communist Party keeps its ruling position, this should be determined by the consequences of society's political openness and the competition between the Communist Party and other political powers. If we take the initiative and do this well, the ruling position of the Communist Party could be maintained for a very long time. However, this ruling position must not be maintained by using the constitution to monopolize this status. Rather, the Party must be made to compete for it. I believe that this is ultimately a worldwide trend that we cannot defy.

There was lots of attention when Prisoner of the State was published eight months ago. Has the momentum disappeared?

Hopefully not. His reflections after the fact are a revealing insight into Party politics and how a senior leader changed his views of China.

The country needs more people like him to make China a better place, for the people, and the world.


gg said...

it is china's shame and misfortune to treat such a good thinker and doer. it would have been a completely different china if it were not for the blunder deng xiao ping made.

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