HONG KONG—Bao Tong, an aide to China’s late premier Zhao Ziyang,
served a seven-year jail term after the deadly June 4, 1989 suppression
of student-led protests in and around Tiananmen Square. Twenty years later, Bao has released a secretly recorded memoir in which Zhao shatters an official blackout on the crackdown and calls for parliamentary democracy in China.
Following is an essay, serialized here and written for RFA’s Mandarin service from Bao’s house arrest in Beijing, in which Bao puts Zhao's memoir in context.
The Historical Background to the Zhao Ziyang Tapes by Bao Tong
Part 1: Why China had to reform
Zhao Ziyang left behind a set of audio recordings. These are his legacy.
Zhao Ziyang’s legacy is for all of China’s people. It is my job to transmit them to the world in the form of words and to arrange things.
This is my political task. The value of these recordings will be for the people of the world to debate. Their contents have implications for a history that is still influencing the people of China to this day. The key theme of this history is reform. On the mainland at the current time, this part of history has been sealed off and distorted, so it will be useful to discuss some of this history for readers who are still young.
It has been nearly 100 years since the  Revolution, and China is still going in the direction of modernization. We are still evolving slowly, and still developing. The invasion by Japanese imperialist forces impeded China’s progress, but it couldn’t reverse our general direction.
But after the effective end of the civil war in 1949, there was a new contract. Until then, the questions of how to continue with step-by-step progress, how to modernize, and whether we wanted socialism or not, were all still up for discussion. If we had really proceeded according to the “Collective Guiding Principles” passed by the first plenary session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on Sept. 29, 1949, which included full general elections and a “land to the tiller” policy, then things would have been fine. 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.
All it could do was to ensure that while some people starved to death, most people were just plain hungry."
The two movements that did succeed in completely reversing China’s direction were the “Socialist Reconstruction” campaign of 1953-58 and the “Anti-Rightist” campaign of 1957, which complemented each other. The former was modeled on Chapters 11 and 12 of the “History of the Soviet Communist Party.” It was aimed at the entire system and was a decision to move forward with collectivization, nationalization, and a planned economy, with the ultimate goal of wiping out private ownership and the market economy.
The latter was the result of the Chinese Communist Party following the will of Mao Zedong under the direction of Deng Xiaoping, who was the chairman of the working group set up to rectify the Party’s working spirit and oppose rightism among its central leadership. They managed to find 550,000 “rightists” from among China’s five million intellectuals. These two campaigns turned the screws of Communist Party rule in China, and ran counter to democracy and the rule of law.
Once we had embarked on this road that called itself socialism, there was no market economy, no land to the tiller, and no freedom. At the same time, we broke with a large number of valuable and age-old Chinese traditions. But this approach was inadequate in the face of the need to build the nation. All it could do was to ensure that while some people starved to death, most people were just plain hungry.
During the Mao era, only people who had an urban household registration card could be sure of guaranteed rations. For example, citizens of Beijing and Shanghai were limited to just under a pound of grain a day, while they were allowed to eat a quarter pound of meat once every three days, and to purchase enough cloth to make a new suit of clothes once a year.
But while Party and state claimed to love China’s peasants, who made up 80 percent of the population, and the urban youth who had been sent to the countryside, they could do nothing to help them, and they were left to fend for themselves and to haul themselves up by their own bootstraps.
The “socialism” of the Mao era left Chinese people dirt-poor and took them off in the opposite direction from their dream of a modern country, which by then was getting further and further away. Mao’s designated successor Chairman Hua Guofeng had no choice but to proclaim the reality that “the national economy is on the verge of collapse.” If this state of affairs had continued much longer, the country would have followed suit. Such was the background to the need for reforms.
Part 2: No reforms added to the remedy
What was the solution? As Wang Dongxing, a former bodyguard of Mao once said, we must implement Chairman Mao’s decisions unswervingly and forever. Chairman Hua Guofeng said the same. At that time, Chen Yun was revered as the highest authority on economic matters in the Party.
He joined the politburo back in the 1930s, 20 years earlier than Deng Xiaoping. He took responsibility for economic policy during the Yan’an era. Chen was Mao’s first deputy prime minister in the days before the “Great Leap Forward,” and as such was in charge of the national economy.
But Mao was suspicious of him, because he tended to seek truth from facts, so he sidelined Chen and decreed that the country should learn to make iron and steel with himself at the helm and Deng Xiaoping as his deputy, with disastrous results. Now, with Mao dead, Chen Yun’s prescription for China’s economy was “adjustments,” to proportion things better.
While Party and state claimed to love China’s peasants...and urban youth...they could do nothing to help them."
This was the crystallization of Chen’s experience. The “Great Leap Forward” had caused the deaths of tens of millions from starvation. It was Chen Yun’s “adjustments” to grain and steel production indices that brought order after the tragedy. Chen Yun opposed the blind economic planning which the Party had been engaged in, but he didn’t oppose the Party’s leadership of the economy.
Neither was he opposed to one-Party rule in politics or to total nationalization and a planned economy, down to the total regulation of the markets for grain, cotton cloth, and oil. That was a system he had painstakingly put into place himself. To do away with those trappings of Maoism would be to do away with Chen Yun himself.
We mustn’t be too simplistic when we analyze Chen Yun. He was the guardian of state ownership, but he wasn’t the guardian of the communes. He preferred a planned economy, but he didn’t much care for unrealistic production targets. He was in favor of big government, but he also thought the markets should play an auxiliary role. (“Large-scale collectivization; small-scale liberalism.”)
He believed that the degree of economic freedom was analogous to a caged bird, but he was against allowing the bird to perch on his hand. He believed in the Soviet Union as the big boss, not in Western imperialism, and in self-reliance and in not relying on imported grain.
Even in those times he was willing to testify with his head held high: “I heard Chairman Mao say once that it’s all right to import grain,” stripping “imported grain” at one stroke of its revisionist implications and rehabilitating it as a logical requirement proceeding from Mao Zedong Thought. He supported one-Party rule by the Communist Party, but he didn’t like it at all when Mao himself dispensed with Party procedure and Party discipline. Zhao Ziyang notes all of this in his memoirs, in an attempt to set the record straight.
Another prestigious Party elder was Deng Xiaoping. Deng was Mao’s trusted aide. This was because, before the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao’s designated successor was Liu Shaoqi, so Deng could only be his assistant. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, people who didn’t know the details were speaking of Deng and Liu in the same breath. But Mao knew very well that the two weren’t the same at all, and he didn’t hound Deng to death.
In his later years, Mao tried to confide in Zhou Enlai that as soon as Deng began to align himself with Zhou, he lost Mao’s favor. Deng was once more expelled from the Party leadership during the Cultural Revolution. But this had the effect of raising him in the estimation of ordinary people, rather than lowering him. After all, perhaps Deng Xiaoping would be the leader capable of reforming the Maoist system?
History has shown that reform really meant doing away with the Maoist system altogether."
Deng’s remedy at that time didn’t include reforms, however, but “rectification.” Rectification was aimed at [state-owned] enterprises and leading cadres, seeking to replace officials who didn’t follow the leadership, and in enforcing organizational discipline and an orderly system with firm resolve, and to meet, or exceed, government production targets.
Rectification was Deng’s forte. In the later stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao set the “Gang of Four” to take charge of the revolution, while Deng Xiaoping was to take charge of production. Deng didn’t understand economics, but he used the methods of “rectification” to boost production figures.
Deng’s strong point was that he was astute. He wasn’t at all muddle-headed or circuitous. He had understood at a very early stage that socialist-style planning was unlikely to rescue the economy from collapse. But he couldn’t risk messing up the economy either. Neither could he take the risk of being labeled an “anti-socialist.” And economics was never his home territory: He was a politician, and that’s where his feet were firmly planted.
In March 1979, he gave a speech that went down in history, titled “Upholding the Four Basic Principles”: Upholding the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the Communist Party, and Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Thought. That was Deng’s political line. One year later, he went a step further by presenting the guiding principle which would enshroud the 1980s in China, titled “The Situtation at Hand and the Tasks Before Us.” In it, he laid out his terrain, talking about international relations and about Taiwan.
But the key point was modernization. How to modernize? This becomes clear if you read that 34-page article in Vol. 2 of The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping. There are four kinds of medicine in Deng’s prescription. The first is to proceed with dispatch. The second is to preserve stability and unity. The third is that the struggle will be a hard one. And the fourth is that expertise is needed, as well as revolutionary zeal.
Deng had thrown all of his political know-how into clearing up the mess left behind after the death of Mao. He was building leadership and boosting morale. But as late as January 1980, his blueprint for the 1980s still contained no mention of reforms.
History has shown that reform really meant doing away with the Maoist system altogether. A failure to reform would mean doing endless somersaults, still trapped inside the Maoist system. It was a total dead end. But none of China’s leaders up until this point, not Hua Guofeng, not Wang Dongxing or Chen Yun, nor Deng Xiaoping, had included reforms in their prescribed solutions.
Part 3: Sichuan tries out reforms
In instigating reforms, it matters how they are implemented. Even more important is what exactly is to be reformed. Nobody, not even Deng Xiaoping or Chen Yun, was entirely clear about just what “systemic reforms” actually meant. Nobody among the central Party leadership could say for sure (or was willing to say) what this meant until economic reforms were first carried out experimentally in Sichuan. They talked a lot about it, but the question of collectivism versus fragmentation was a risky one.
Sichuan knew what it was about, though. There, they didn’t just talk about reforms; they actually did something, and started to act in a cautious way. In 1976, Sichuan began to relax its policies. By 1978 it had expanded its reach from politics to systemic changes, and had instituted an experiment in economic reforms in the cities and the countryside. In the countryside, economic reform consisted of giving the farmers more autonomy.
Now, “autonomy” isn’t quite as dazzling as “leadership rights,” “ownership rights,” or “planning rights,” but it’s not as vague and unsteady as “zealous.” If you are seen as “zealous,” then they will give you a handful of small change as a bonus and that will be it.
If you talked about “ownership rights” or “planning rights,” then you would be branded a rebel in the eyes of any right-thinking member of society. Or perhaps you might just be unaware that “ownership rights” always belong to Joe Public, “planning rights” to the government, and “leadership rights” to the Party?
“Autonomy” is a moderate word. It’s clear, dependable, and that’s where they began, where it was possible to dissect the matter at great depth and to preserve stability at the same time. The phrases “autonomy of the farmers” and “the autonomy of [state-owned] enterprises” rested on the obvious premise that the farmers and state-owned enterprises (and not the state or the Party) were now the main agents of the rural and urban economies respectively.
This would also be the premise of market economics. The expansion of autonomy for farmers and enterprises was synonymous with a reduction in the power of government and Party to interfere with them.
In 1978, the Sichuan Party Committee, under the leadership of first secretary Zhao Ziyang, implemented a policy of experimental economic reforms, which consisted of an expansion of autonomy.
This was a substantive step towards bringing reforms into economic life. It was also was the first step of Zhao Ziyang’s journey on the path of reform. As a reformist, his mission was to promote the withdrawal of Party and state from the countryside and from [state-owned] enterprises.
To put it more clearly, “enforced administrative factors from outside the economy” were being made to give ground to “economic agents.” At the same time, Hu Yaobang was developing the vocabulary of “righting wrong and trumped-up cases” in his work of rehabilitation. Neither of these historic concepts was to be found in the canon of political works, but they started to spread like wildfire, and they made people think. They left an aftertaste.
Sichuan was the most populated province in China. It included the northern, southern, western, and eastern regions, together with what is now the municipality of Chongqing and parts of what was western Tibet under the 1911 Republic. One hundred million of China’s total population of 1 billion lived in Sichuan. Two thousand years of natural irrigation had turned the land into a sort of paradise.
In the 1960s, Mao Zedong had set up the “third line” production homefront in an attempt to turn it into an industrial, military, and technological base. During the “Great Leap Forward,” the first provincial Party secretary was a man who cared more about the mood of Mao than he did about his people’s welfare.
Of the 30-40 million people who died of starvation from 1959-61, 10 million of them were in Sichuan! Mao’s system had plunged Sichuan into poverty, and boosting the autonomy of the farmers and the enterprises breathed new life into the province.
Of course this wasn’t all the personal doing of the leadership at the time, but it was without doubt the manifestation of the leaders’ mindset. There was a folk saying at the time: “If you want to eat grain, go to Zhao Ziyang,” which spread as far as Beijing.
Party Central Organization Minister Hu Yaobang’s righting of wrong and trumped-up cases, together with the steady economic reforms being carried out by Sichuan first Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, were two bright spots that ordinary people had to talk about in those days.
Part 4: Entering the era of reform
In 1978-79, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang joined the politburo in close succession. In February 1980, they both joined the standing committee, Hu as General Secretary, and Zhao as the head of the Party central economic and financial working group, deputy premier, and premier. Now we have reached the era of reform covered in Zhao Ziyang’s memoir.
The economic reforms that Zhao had instituted in Sichuan would look like chicken feed compared with the scale of reforms that he would now roll out across the whole country.
But who could say for sure how to institute systemic reforms, and how this should happen? Those who might have known what to do had all been struggled out of existence since the 1950s. A series of successive “class struggle” campaigns carried out by Mao Zedong over several decades with the aim of wrecking the market economy had produced several generations of scholars and officials across China who had nothing but hatred and fear of a market economy.
Now, another 30 years have passed, and people are slowly beginning to realize that economic reforms meant the reform of Mao Zedong’s system. But it’s strange. In mainland China, people still only refer to this as reform, not as de-Maoification. Reforms are to be praised, but de-Maoification is to be reviled. This is how things stand, 30 years on.
If anyone had suggested reforming the Maoist system 30 years ago, they would undoubtedly have met the same fate as schoolteacher Zhang Zhixin and student Lin Zhao, and the reforms would have been choked off before they had even begun to put out shoots.
So, we proceeded step by step on the path of de-Maoification, that is to say, the path of the denial of Maoist economics. In 1978 it was “autonomy.” Three years later, in November 1981, Zhao Ziyang put forward a new perspective: “economic benefits.” He enumerated the economic growth figures from 1952-80. The total production figures for industry and agriculture had risen by a factor of 8.1 and national income by a factor of 4.2. Fixed assets in agriculture and industry had risen by a factor of 26.
So what had happened to the standard of living of ordinary people? After 28 years on the old road, this is the economic benefit we saw. Could we still refuse to take the new road? Another three years passed, and in 1984 we had the concept of a “commodity economy.”
At last, under Zhao Ziyang’s relentless work to promote it, this concept was allowed to stand in China; at last it had become legal! This “commodity economy,” which was able to gain legally acceptable status amid the political forces in operation at the time, was really just another word for “market economy.”
So now we touch upon the entire history of reform, the trials and tribulations on the quest, the collaborations and the disagreements. All of them are discussed in this book. This is the most in-depth account and the most reliable history of this era that I have read to date.
Part 5: Zhao and Deng differ over the relationship between the Party and the people
In 1989, there was an overt clash between Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang. The death of Hu Yaobang gave rise to the student demonstrations. Deng advocated mustering national defense troops to suppress them, while Zhao wanted to solve the problem of corruption, which was closest to the hearts of ordinary Chinese people, along the lines of democracy and rule of law.
At the same time, he wanted to deepen economic reforms while instituting reforms of the political system. This concentrated minds across the country on the question of reform.
Everyone saw what happened: Deng, then head of the Central Military Commission, judged Zhao Ziyang to be guilty of the crimes of “splitting the Party” and “supporting rebellion.” The Party elders picked Jiang Zemin to succeed him. After Jiang came to power, he treated Zhao like a public enemy, and held him under house arrest until his death.
He also erased Zhao Ziyang’s name from publications, news reporting, and from the pages of the history books in mainland China. There was no personal grudge between Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang. Zhao had been posted to Beijing to take up a post in April 1980. Deng Xiaoping had been happy with his work right up until the student movement began in April 1989. And it wasn’t just ordinary satisfaction; he was extremely pleased with him.
Deng Xiaoping hadn’t let his attitude to reforms be known in the early stages. That’s because he was still uncertain, and feared they might lead to unrest, and an uncontrollable situation. This was perfectly normal for a politician.
After he saw what happened in Sichuan, Deng Xiaoping began to relax. And when he saw that Zhao continued to serve steadily after his arrival in Beijing, instituting stable reforms to create steady economic growth in both the planned and liberalized sectors of the economy at the same time, he became even less worried.
One could say that Deng was an avid follower of the reforms implemented by Zhao, and one of his most powerful and unreserved supporters. And Zhao was sincerely pleased at Deng’s support. The two men collaborated very well.
The differences between them only flared up over how to evaluate and how to deal with the student movement of 1989. The deepest divisions between them were over the nature of the relationship between the Party and the people. Zhao thought the students’ commemoration of Hu Yaobang was normal and perfectly legal.
Deng said it was an anti-social and anti-Party rebellion. Zhao said the students were asking for an end to corruption and for democracy, along the lines of democracy and the rule of law, that a solution should be found through consultation with people from all walks of life, and that reforms should be taken a step further. Deng said the leadership couldn’t give in to the students and that the military should be called in and the capital put under martial law.
This debate occurred at the Politburo Standing Committee meeting on the afternoon of May 17. There were five people on the standing committee. Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili were in agreement, while Li Peng and Yao Yilin had another idea. Qiao Shi was on the fence. Deng Xiaoping said he supported the “majority opinion” on the standing committee, and so he made a fuss and got his way.
According to the “Guidelines for discussing matters on the [Politburo] Standing Committee” passed by the 13th Politburo Plenary session, a serious difference of opinion among standing committee members when discussing weighty matters should trigger a report from the standing committee to the full Politburo membership, and a request to the Politburo and Party Central Committee to make a decision.
(At the time, there were 17 members of the Politburo, 14 of whom were in Beijing. It took a while to find the other three, who were in other provinces.)
Perhaps Deng Xiaoping thought he didn’t need to abide by standing committee guidelines, as he wasn’t himself a standing committee member. Perhaps he thought that this problem wasn’t weighty enough. At any rate, he thought he had the power to intervene, and could simply ask the Politburo to endorse his decision after the event, or perhaps he had no concept of Party discipline.
According to the “Constitution,” all power in the People’s Republic of China lies with the people. Maybe Deng Xiaoping thought that it would be too much trouble to waste time talking to the standing body of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and that it would be inefficient, and he wouldn’t be able to get things done easily. Perhaps he honestly believed that the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China didn’t apply to the “core leadership of the Communist Party of China.”
According to the “Constitution,” the State Council has the right of decision regarding martial law. During the three days from May 17, when martial law was decided upon, to May 19, when it was implemented, was there in fact a full meeting of the State Council or its standing committee? It is easily checked; I have looked it up. There was no such meeting.
So that is how the June 4 massacre happened, when several hundred thousand national defense troops entered the capital, using tanks and assault rifles on the students and citizens. The army was used on a people who were making peaceful demands on the Party and government.
And once this tragedy had happened, there followed by interrogation and persecution throughout the whole Party, military and among ordinary people. Stability crushes everything. 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!
As a citizen, Zhao Ziyang was held under illegal house arrest by the Party Central leadership for a total of 15 years, which that great reformer was unable to escape until his death at the age of 85. He is finally “free.”
Some say that the General Secretary tried to split the Party, which was saved by the then chairman of the Central Military Commission.
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.
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. In other political parties, differences of opinion are normal.
But the Chinese Communist Party’s political power came from the barrel of a gun, and it had always dealt with dissenting opinion according to orders from its leadership. Ruthless attacks and struggle sessions perpetrated on its own members and on ordinary citizens are commonplace in the history of the Chinese Communist Party.
Part 6: How the Chinese people were silenced when the army opened fire on June 4
I don’t know how many of my compatriots died at the hands of machine guns and tanks. Every year, China holds a conference to discuss the number of people who died during the Japanese invasion, but they have never discussed how many of China’s citizens were killed by the People’s Liberation Army. Outside China, the authorities put it out that “not one person died on Tiananmen Square.”
This was very well put, but it’s not true.
There are people who were killed by random bullets as they stood at the windows of the “Minister’s Building,” where my family lived at the time. I heard that the entire world watched the Beijing massacre unfold on live television. By then, I was already in jail, and I didn’t see it. But I believe that the images they saw were the personal work of Deng Xiaoping, not an attempt by the foreign media to “demonize China.”
After the bloodshed, a witch-hunt began throughout the entire Party, military and across the nation. I don’t know what happened after that.
I don’t know how many people were punished for sympathizing with the student movement, or for opposing the use of military force to suppress the people. But based on my experience, I would say that it was probably a great many more than those who were killed or injured directly. The true number of those who were persecuted is a state and Party secret, about which no one is allowed to enquire or “spread rumors.”
How many people lost their homes or families? How many were removed from public office, only to be barred from ever finding any other work and prevented from earning a living? How many disappeared, went to labor camp, or received jail terms? Who knows?
The Party central leadership set a precedent when it used force against its own citizens. 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.
And how many small-scale Tiananmen incidents have there been at village, township, county, municipal, and provincial level since in which officials have used force against citizens? Some people say that this happens daily, about 365 times a year. Perhaps it does.
And how many victims have there been of these little Tiananmen incidents of the last 20 years? That’s another state secret, which the authorities won’t reveal, nor will they allow Chinese media to tell the people, either.
Some people say that prosperity arose from that crackdown. I only know that the economic reforms created prosperity. It was the people who used market economics to smash the fetters put on them by Mao Zedong who created prosperity.
Some people like to sum it up by saying that prosperity was the daughter of suppression. In the face of a global economic crisis, I don’t know they are planning to share their experience, and suggest a good crackdown as a way of saving the world economy
Some people are full of praise for the way that a silenced China has hauled its economy out of nowhere to be second only to that of the United States. I believe this is genuine. China was already a veritable paradise of prosperity under the Emperor Khubla Khan, as witnessed by Marco Polo.
In the 1920s, evidence supplied by the famous journalist Zou Taofen shows that China had the third-largest economy in the world under the Northern Warlords, bigger than that of Germany or Japan and second only to Britain and America. Given that Britain had a lot of colonies back then, if we recalculated according to today’s national borders, we might find that China’s economic performance under the Northern Warlords was no worse than its performance today under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
China back then had not yet even suffered the plunder that was involved in its unification, and so it still managed to come second in the world in terms of prosperity.
June 4 created a situation in which the Chinese people were silenced. After Deng Xiaoping’s  southern tour, the mute crow began to rasp on about economic reforms once more, and wealth once more began to be redistributed. And who benefited from this redistribution of wealth amid the silence of the people? I don’t know. I only know that all those who were silenced were also the victims of the June 4 massacre.
Even those who were born after the event have to live in ignorance, bowing and scraping, worshiping power, and listening respectfully to lies. Of course they too are innocent victims.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.