Why The Communist Party Was Lucky To Have Zhao Ziyang

A commentary by Bao Tong
2016-01-18
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Bao Tong shows a photo of his former boss former Zhao Ziyang at his home in Beijing in a file photo.
Bao Tong shows a photo of his former boss former Zhao Ziyang at his home in Beijing in a file photo.
AFP

On May 28, 1989, I was sent to jail with no documentation whatsoever.

As soon as I arrived at Qincheng Prison, I fell into a long, deep sleep.

Then, someone arrived at the dead of night bearing a letter from the Chinese Communist Party central committee anounced that it had decided to investigate me. They wanted me to make a detailed account of all of my activities since former premier Hu Yaobang died on April 15.

About 10 days later, the investigation team told me not to bother writing down my own activities; they wanted me to expose Zhao Ziyang, because they were in the process of investigating him as well.

"But what is there to investigate about Zhao Ziyang? The party is lucky to have him as its general secretary," I told them. I still think that to this day.

More than 20 years have passed, and Zhao Ziyang has been dead a long while. The investigators never asked me why I thought the party was lucky to have Zhao. Now that another anniversary of his death is here, I think I should explain.

I have seen a lot of party leaders in my time, from production brigade and commune leaders, to village, county and provincial party secretaries, all the way up to the central committee. And I can tell you that not all those who become leaders deserve to.

As I wrote in my draft for some teaching materials for party members proposed by Deng Xiaoping in 1962 at a meeting of the secretariat, and handed to Zhao Han, deputy head of the party's organization department for implementation: "If they open their mouths, it's only to issue orders, and if they extend their hand, it's only to order others around."

This isn't a complete, scientific summary. It is limited to my own, very narrow, personal experience.

Under current system, where the party controls everything: government, people, military and academic life, then any leader who emerges must of necessity be some sort of omnipotent deity.

Until of course they are placed under investigation by disciplinary inspectors: then they are reduced once more to the status of mere fleas.

I have seen party secretaries of provinces, prefectures, counties, communes and production brigades, all with their inimitable style when it came to teaching the farmers how to till the land: deep plowing; close planting; crop rotation; they knew it all.

The farmers were forced to listen to them respectfully, and to do as they were told without making a fuss. There were few exceptions to this type, and Zhao Ziyang was one of them. His idea was that the farmers should be given free rein.

Similarly, I have heard tales of how party leaders accused and reprimanded factory and mine bosses, issuing punishments and firing people by order. Here, too, Zhao was the exception.

He would privilege the autonomy of businesses acting within the marketplace over the power of government agencies to direct them, both in meetings of the State Council and the party central committee.

Some leaders like to act as the final arbiter for judges, and never tire of teaching them how to reach decisions. But not Zhao Ziyang.

He refused to interfere in the workings of the judiciary, with its right to operate independently. He wouldn't even share his personal opinions or leanings.

He told the judiciary: "The only thing the party requires of you is that you only act according to the law. That's it."

On one occasion, a certain leader with a keen political sense thought he had detected a whiff of hostile foreign forces in certain cultural works. But Zhao wouldn't play their game. He told the orchestrator of the main theme tune: "We watch movies. We don't investigate them."

He didn't see himself as having the right to investigate culture, any more than the average person did.

I worked with Zhao Ziyang for 10 years, and I never once saw him tell scientists how to innovate, nor teachers how to teach, nor farmers how to till the land.

He didn't believe that it was his job to divide people into friends and enemies, either. During the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976], the central committee under Mao Zedong criticized the Guangdong provincial party secretary for his "counterrevolutionary opinions" regarding the Li Yizhe group [and their critique of the party elite].

Zhao Ziyang, who was that Guangdong provincial party secretary, turned it around deftly by throwing the debate open among the revolutionary masses, on the grounds that they were better qualified than he to sort the sheep from the goats.

He never saw himself as having the right to decide the fates of others. He treated them as people, not as assets to be disposed of, made use of or manipulated at will.

He also saw himself as human, not as some deity with the power to dominate others.

That's why the last thing he wanted the government to do was to open fire on Chinese citizens. And that's why we, in a system where the party controls everything, were so very lucky to have him.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, former political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.

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