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Tiananmen ghosts

Tiananmen ghosts

Author: Adi Ignatius
Publication: Time
Date: May 25, 2009
URL: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1898042,00.html

Introduction: Twenty Years after China's tragedy, a secret journal reveals new details of the power struggle that led to the massacre

When the tanks and troops blasted their way into Beijing's Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, crushing the student-led protest movement that had captivated the world, the biggest political casualty was Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, the man who had tried hardest to avoid the bloodshed.

Outmaneuvered by his hard-line rivals, Zhao was stripped of power and placed under house arrest. The daring innovator who had introduced capitalist policies to post-Mao Zedong China spent his last 16 years virtually imprisoned, rarely allowed to venture away from his home on a quiet alley in Beijing. As his hair turned white, Zhao passed many lonely hours driving golf balls into a net in his courtyard.

Yet as it turns out, Zhao never stopped thinking about Tiananmen. Through courage and subterfuge, he found a way, in the isolation of his heavily monitored home, to secretly record his account of what it was like to serve at China's highest levels of power - and more amazingly, he sneaked his memoir out of the country. Published this month, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang provides an intimate look at one of the world's most opaque regimes during some of modern China's most critical moments. It marks the first time a Chinese leader of such stature - as head of the party, Zhao was nominally China's highest-ranking official - has spoken frankly about life at the top. Most significantly, Zhao's account could encourage future Chinese leaders to revisit the events of Tiananmen and acknowledge the government's tragic mistakes there. Hundreds of people were killed or imprisoned by government forces, though few Chinese today know the full story.

In the book, Zhao, who died in 2005, details the drama and conflict behind the scenes during the Tiananmen protests. The priority of the party's leaders ultimately wasn't to suppress a rebellion but to settle a power struggle between conservative and liberal factions. China's hard-liners had tried for years to derail the economic and political innovations that Zhao had introduced; Tiananmen, Zhao demonstrates in his journal, gave the conservatives a pretext to set the clock back. The key moment in Zhao's narrative is a meeting held at Deng Xiaoping's home on May 17, 1989, less than three weeks before the Tiananmen massacre. Zhao argued that the government should back off from its harsh threats against the protesters and look for ways to ease tensions. Two conservative officials immediately stood up to criticize Zhao, effectively blaming the escalating protests on him. Deng had the last word with his fateful decision to impose martial law and move troops into the capital. In a rare historical instance of a split at the party's highest levels, Zhao wouldn't sign on: "I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students."

With his political career more or less finished, Zhao went to Tiananmen Square to talk to some of the tens of thousands of protesters massed there. Premier Li Peng, Zhao's primary rival, tagged along - though Zhao says Li was "terrified" and quickly left the scene. A teary Zhao spoke to student leaders through a bullhorn. "We have come too late," he said, urging students to leave the square to help calm things down. Few heeded his words. About two weeks later, the tanks and troops were sent in.

When the assault on Tiananmen began, he could only wince as he heard the pop-pop-pop of automatic rifles near his home: "While sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire," he wrote. "A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all."

Zhao's effort to record and preserve his memoir required both secrecy and conspiracy. Under the noses of his captors, he recorded his material on about 30 tapes, each roughly an hour long. Judging from the content, most of the recording took place in or around 2000. Members of his family say even they were unaware that this was taking place. The recordings were on cassettes - mostly Peking opera and kids' music - that had been lying around the house. Zhao methodically noted their order by numbering them with faint pencil marks. There were no titles or other notes. The first few recordings were of discussions with friends. But most were taped alone, and Zhao apparently read from a text he had prepared.

When Zhao had finished the taping after a couple of years, he found a way to pass the material to a few trusted friends who had also been high-level party officials. Each was given only some of the recordings, evidently to hedge against their being lost or confiscated. After Zhao died four years ago, some of the people who knew about the recordings - they can't be named here because of fears of retaliation from Chinese authorities - launched a complex, clandestine effort to gather the material in one place and transcribe it for publication. Later, another set of tapes, perhaps the originals, was found hidden among his grandchildren's toys in his study.

The power structure described in the book is chaotic and often bumbling. In Zhao's narrative, Deng is a conflicted figure who urges Zhao to push hard for economic change but demands a crackdown on anything that seems to challenge the party's authority. Deng is at times portrayed not as an emperor but as a puppet subject to manipulation by Zhao or his rivals, depending on who presents his case to the old man first.

Once placed under house arrest, Zhao could do little but obsess over past events, rewinding the clock to pore over the technicalities of the state's case against him. His few attempts to venture out met with almost comically Kafkaesque resistance. For example, when authorities finally permitted him to play pool at a club for party officials, they first swept the place of other people, ensuring that Zhao played alone. His captors ultimately succeeded in keeping him out of view and silencing his voice, and they put up enough obstacles to deter all but the most determined visitors. As he said in his recordings, "The entrance to my home is a cold, desolate place."

Yet inside the gate, Zhao was busy at work, taping the journal that now gives him a final say about what really happened and what might have been. It's a fitting final act for a man who made enormous contributions to today's China. Although Deng generally gets credit for modernizing China's economy, it was Zhao who brought about the innovations - from breaking up Mao's collective farms to creating freewheeling special economic zones along the coast - that jolted China's economy from its slumber. And it was Zhao who had to continually outflank powerful rivals who didn't want to see the system change.

The China that Zhao describes is very much alive now. The country's team of leaders continues to promote economic freedom yet intimidates or arrests anyone who dares to call for political change. At the end of last year, more than 300 Chinese activists, marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, jointly signed Charter 08, a document that calls on the party to reform its political system and allow freedom of expression. Beijing responded as it often does: it interrogated many of the signatories and arrested some, including prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was active during the Tiananmen protests.

At the end of his journal, Zhao concludes that China must become a parliamentary democracy to meet the challenges of the modern world - a remarkable observation from someone who spent his entire career in service to the Communist Party, and one that might well provoke a debate on China's Internet discussion boards and in its chat rooms. Zhao's ultimate aim was a strong economy, but he had become convinced that this goal was inextricably linked to the development of democracy. China's ability to avoid another tragedy like Tiananmen might depend on how quickly that comes about.

- Ignatius is the editor of Harvard Business Review and one of the editors of Prisoner of the State.


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