Late Former Party Chief Pleaded For Freedom, But None Came

Nov. 01, 1987: Zhao Ziyang speaks during the 13th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—China’s late former Communist Party boss Zhao Ziyang, who died in 2005 after 15 years under house arrest in Beijing, wrote to Party leaders as early as 1997 asking for his freedom, so he wouldn’t have to “live out my remaining years in loneliness and confinement,” a hitherto unpublished letter reveals.

Premier of the People's Republic of China from 1980-87 and general secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1987-89, Zhao was ousted after taking a conciliatory line with the students who led mass protests on Tiananmen Square in May and June 1989.

Those who come after us will hardly regard my house arrest and loss of freedom as a glorious page in the history of our Party.

According to the letter, made available by the Hong Kong-based editors of a forthcoming book on Zhao for exclusive broadcast by RFA, Zhao had already written to the Party during the 15th Party Congress in September, asking for a reconsideration of the events of 1989.

“I recently wrote a letter to the entire Party on the occasion of the 15th Party Congress in which I call for the verdict of the 'June 4' incident to be re-evaluated,” the Oct. 13 letter said.

Zhao talked to students

Sensitivities surrounding Zhao surfaced publicly during the 1997 Party Congress when the Chinese authorities pulled the plug on an overseas broadcaster who tried to show television pictures of Zhao addressing the students on Tiananmen Square, when he told them: “Sorry. I have come too late.”

The letter also makes clear that this was the exact point at which security around Zhao was stepped up, not to be relaxed until his death on Jan. 17, 2005.

“I am sure that you have already seen this letter,” Zhao wrote. “From the moment I sent it, I was no longer allowed to have visitors or to leave my house. My freedom was put under the strictest limitation. From a previously rather loosely implemented house arrest, I became subject to house arrest in its strictest sense.”

The Oct. 13 letter gives fresh insight into the last years of one of China’s top leaders, whose portrayal in recent writings by his former aide, Bao Tong, shows a skilled politician at the height of his power in Beijing, with a deep commitment to political reform from within the Communist Party itself.

The letter revisits several times the theme of “socialist rule of law” espoused by the leaders of the time, mostly with great irony, considering the treatment meted out to Zhao himself. It shows a man full of regret at the actions of his Party, and with a desire to live the remainder of his life in dignity.

Zhao Ziyang speaks to students on Tiananmen Square, May 1989. Photo: AFP/File

“Since June 1989 I have been held under illegal house arrest, whether it be semi house-arrest or full house arrest. That’s eight years, and I still don’t know how much longer I must endure the loss of my basic freedoms,” Zhao writes in a letter addressed to the Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo, then in the hands of President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji.

Plea for freedom

“This is undoubtedly causing me great physical and psychological harm, I who am an old man of nearly 80 now,” Zhao said.

“I hope that these blatant and outrageous acts that are being perpetrated under the noses of the central leadership will be stopped, that my house arrest will be lifted soon, and that I will get my freedom back, and that I won’t have to live out the remainder of my years in loneliness and confinement.”

But Zhao said still greater harm had been done to the image of the Party in its handling of Zhao since the bloody crackdown by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, in Beijing on June 3, 1989, and in the days that followed.

“It is unavoidable that people will set my treatment and the Party’s 'rule of law' pronouncements side-by-side, and draw their own conclusions about the sloganeering that is coming out of the 15th Party Congress about the rule of law,” he wrote.

Zhao’s letter fired a last salvo at the third generation of Chinese leaders under Jiang and Zhu, who frequently pointed to economic reforms and growing prosperity as ample justification for the stability bought by the June 4 crackdown.

History to judge

Using the sensitive subject of the historical record, Zhao slammed his treatment at the hands of those who succeeded him.

“Those who come after us will hardly regard my house arrest and loss of freedom as a glorious page in the history of our Party,” he wrote.

Zhao Lives: An Additional Collection of Commemorative Essays and Poems will be published by Hong Kong’s Pacific Century Publishing House on June 3, in time for the 17th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. It is edited by Wu Guoguang, Zhang Weiguo, and Bao Pu.

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


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