Battle To Write China's History

An aide to China's late ex-premier discusses the legacy Zhao Ziyang left behind, and how it might still change China.
2009-05-26
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Bao Tong303
Former Communist Party aide Bao Tong.
RFA

Link to essay on Zhao Ziyang's Legacy

HONG KONG—He was erased from the public record and held under house arrest until his death in 2005, but China's late disgraced premier Zhao Ziyang secretly recorded a memoir that offers an alternative to China's official version of recent history, according to a former aide.

Bao Tong, sent away from his Beijing home ahead of the sensitive 20th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, also published a six-part essay aimed at Chinese youth, who are unlikely to have heard of Zhao thanks to a vigorous campaign by his successors to erase Zhao's name from the historical record.

In this essay, Bao regrets that guidelines agreed upon at the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, which included land reforms, democracy, and parliamentary elections, have yet to be implemented.

In other political parties, differences of opinion are normal, but the Chinese Communist Party’s political power came from the barrel of a gun."

Bao Tong

"It wouldn’t have been hard to sort out some of the other systemic problems in China if we had solved those two big questions at the outset," wrote Bao, in an essay that reads like an informal lecture.

But "once we had embarked on this road that called itself socialism, there was no market economy, no land to the tiller, and no freedom," he said, adding that this approach proved grossly inadequate in the face of the need to build a modern China.

"All it could do was to ensure that while some people starved to death, most people were just plain hungry," Bao said.

"History," wrote Bao, shows the Chinese people that the "reforms and opening up" ushered in three decades ago really amount to a bid to do away with Maoist politics altogether.

Setting a precedent

But for Bao, that process was arrested in 1989, when late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping called in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to suppress the student movement, which was calling for democracy, rule of law, and an end to official corruption.

"The Party central leadership set a precedent when it used force against its own citizens," wrote Bao. "In the 20 years that followed, generation after generation of leaders has been required to laud the crackdown, as if they were swearing an oath."

He pointed to thousands of incidents of mass unrest reported across China annually, styling them "mini-Tiananmens" in provinces, cities, counties, and villages across the country.

"Some people like to sum it up by saying that prosperity was the daughter of suppression," Bao said of the argument that the crackdown brought stability and prosperity instead of social upheaval in its wake.

Fall from power

Bao also outlined the fall from political power of Zhao, whom he lauds as a key reformer in modern Chinese history, hinged on a disagreement within the top echelons of Party leadership over how to handle the student-led pro-democracy movement.

"Stability crushes everything," he said.

"It crushed reforms, it crushed the law, it crushed conscience, it crushed a leader of the nation, and who knows how many people from ordinary families!"

He said both Zhao and Deng, who as chairman of the Central Military Commission ordered troops to fire on protesters and citizens without waiting for approval from top decision-making bodies, were Party men through and through who had collaborated well together before the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989.

"Some say that the general secretary tried to split the Party, which was saved by the then chairman of the Central Military Commission," Bao wrote.

"According to my observations, both men were loyal Party members, whose fates were bound up with that of the Party, and both wanted to make a success of that Party."

But the decision had hinged on their differing interpretations of students' intentions.

"The Central Military Commission chairman believed that the Party shouldn’t appear to be weak in the face of its people, while the general secretary believed that the Party should take its cue from and obey public opinion," Bao said.

"In other political parties, differences of opinion are normal, but the Chinese Communist Party’s political power came from the barrel of a gun...Ruthless attacks and struggle sessions perpetrated on its own members and on ordinary citizens are commonplace," he wrote.

Original reporting by RFA's Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.