Remembering Zhao Ziyang: Bao Tongs Essay


2005.02.01
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A woman mourns Zhao Ziyang outside the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing on Saturday Jan. 30, the day of his funeral. Photo: AFP

Part 1. At Danger's Edge

It's nearly 15 years since June 4, 1989. I cherish the memory of Zhao Ziyang, and wish him peace and good health. He must be 85 this year.

These days, a lot of students have never heard of Zhao Ziyang. They've only heard of the "Three Represents."

But 20-odd years ago, there wasn't a single farmer who had been to school who didn't understand the meaning of: "If you want to eat rice, seek [former Anhui governor] Wan Li. If you want to eat grain, find Ziyang."

Shortly after Zhao Ziyang became premier, in about 1980, he was passing through Lankao County, in Henan province, and the farmers there told him: "This is such good sandy earth, but the leaders won't let us grow peanuts. They make us grow grain, so how could we not be poor?" Ziyang went back to Beijing, full of sighs, saying: "The peasants have been made poor by poor management."

After reforms had been in progress for several years, the question of what it was exactly that was being reformed should have become clear. But for some, it was still rather hazy.

Whenever Zhao spoke, it was always with great clarity and precision. He didn't say: "The farmers have been made poor by the leaders," or: "The peasants have been made poor by the Communist Party." His style was always correct, clear and moderately expressed.

Zhao Ziyang isn't an expert on growing grain. But he understands the peasants. He knows that the land is tilled by China's farmers, not by its leaders; the leaders have no business micro-managing the peasants; the peasants have the right to a means of production and to work the land as their own masters.

The whole of China has been "made poor by poor management." The Cultural Revolution was poor management. The Great Leap Forward and the communes were poor management. So were collectivization based on political theory and the command economy.

Zhao Ziyang was in charge of economic work at a time when China's economy was on the brink of collapse. Where was the solution? The solution lay in reforms.

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A protester displays a portrait of Zhao Ziyang outside Hong Kong's Legislative Council, Jan. 19, 2005. Zhao was mourned in the territory, where he is seen as a symbol of its own struggle for political change. Photo: AFP/Mike Clarke

After reforms had been in progress for several years, the question of what it was exactly that was being reformed should have become clear. But for some, it was still rather hazy. One day, Zhao Ziyang invited a member of the Politburo and the chairman of the Party's State Planning Commission [which was in charge of the command economy] to his house for a chat. During the relaxed conversation, Zhao said: "Just what are economic reforms supposed to be reforming?" The chairman said: "Ah... ." Zhao continued, smiling: "The economic reforms are supposed to be reforming your State Planning Commission."

The purpose of this rather pointed comment was, I think, to give the chairman a chance to come up with his own ideas to propose when the time was right. Such was Zhao's intelligent and obliging nature.

...Later, in a Politburo meeting, someone asked the difference between a "socialist merchandize economy" and a "socialist market economy": two phrases currently employed at the time. Zhao said: "In terms of the practicalities of our work, there isn't any difference."

A "merchandize economy" was simply used to minimize shock and to make it easier for people to accept. The "merchandize economy" we were talking about at the 13th Party Congress [in 1987] is the same as the "market economy," just a different way of saying it.

One time he turned to the assembled Politburo members of China's Communist Party and said in all honesty, asking for clarification: "What is socialism anyway? Can anyone explain it clearly?" Then he stated calmly and honestly: "I can't say what it is."

Zhao also said in a separate place that Western economies had used different methods, including money markets, securities markets and so on, and that China should study them. Later, some people said that the phrase "socialist market economy" was invented in the 1990s by whoever, but they were obviously not familiar with what was going on in the 1980s.

...Another of Zhao's characteristics was that he would never pretend to know something he didn't...One time he turned to the assembled Politburo members of China's Communist Party and said in all honesty, asking for clarification: "What is socialism anyway? Can anyone explain it clearly?" Then he stated calmly and honestly: "I can't say what it is."

Zhao was a politician who really and truly sought truth from facts. How many have there been like him in the history of the Chinese Communist Party?

No sincere person, in or outside the Party, who really understands the history of the 1980s in China, could fail to cherish a deep respect for Zhao Ziyang—a deep respect which wells up from the heart, and which has to remain suppressed there.

After the 12th Party Congress in 1982, the Party divided the top jobs between General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was to take charge of politics, and Premier Zhao Ziyang, who was to take care of the economy.

Part 2. The impossible double load

At the beginning of 1987, the old guard decided to depose Hu Yaobang and have Zhao step into his shoes. Zhao refused, saying: "What I really want to do is economic reforms," and: "I am not General Secretary material." But the old guard insisted that Zhao shoulder these two burdens.

Even when someone else had taken over the office of Premier, Zhao was still expected to continue as head of the Party financial and economic working group. This so-called division of labor was unprecedented. Zhao was faced with an impossible task, although he was equal to it.

The left of the Party had already started ...pushing its Anti-Bourgeois Liberalism campaign, in a growing attempt to bring down the reform program. Zhao shouldered his burden with a practised hand, inviting the representatives of the main factions to a meeting...on May 13.

In front of about a thousand people, of the left, right and center of the Party, Zhao made his report. And then he asked them: "Who will take responsibility if we get the economy wrong?" In the discussions which followed the meeting, there was none among the leftists who was willing to take responsibility. So none replied. Anti-Bourgelib died a painless death, and economic reforms continued.

Zhao went on to be formally installed as General Secretary at the 13th Party Congress in 1987. Afterwards, he nipped into the crowd of reporters to give spontaneous interviews. A foreign journalist asked him what he would do now he had taken office? And off the top of his head he replied: "Reforms. Reform of the political system!"

A foreign journalist asked Zhao Ziyang what he would do now he had taken office. And off the top of his head he replied: "Reforms. Reform of the political system!"

Deng Xiaoping had already asked Zhao to explain himself on the topic of political reforms back in 1986. Deng saw political reform as the basis on which to increase effectiveness, separating Party and State, improving the functioning of departments and the Party's working style, and overcoming bureaucratism.

The aim was to improve production, now that plans to "Quadruple the economy" had fallen through. Zhao...saw further than Deng, however, to the long-term stability of the country, to the building of a democratic polity which would improve relations between the people, and remove all possibility of a recurrence of the Cultural Revolution.

Deng agreed with Zhao's overall plans for political reforms, but he insisted on a single phrase: "Do not follow the Western model of the three-way separation of powers." Zhao added Deng's change to his plans, but apart from that did not change a thing. He was truly concerned about whether ordinary people had grain to eat, and about the liberty and rights of ordinary citizens...

...Zhao Ziyang had a strong loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. In all the 10 years I worked with him, I never once heard him talk about abolishing the Party's leadership. But his loyalty to the people was even stronger. He would collect opinions, after he became General Secretary, as to how best to improve or transform the Party's work.

Some people found the word "transform" repellent, but Zhao patiently explained that Mao Zedong had exhorted them to rectify the Party's style of work, and also to transform the way they studied.

I don't investigate movies; I watch them. If I have to issue a directive for every movie I watch, I think I'll stop watching movies.

Mao Zedong had decreed that the First Secretary should take command, but Zhao never presumed on this, preferring instead his own rule, that the General Secretary is in fact a secretary-general [a more professionalized, facilitating role in Chinese politics].

For a long time, beginning back in 1959 with the Lushan Congress, leadership meetings within the Party followed the whim of Mao. Hu Yaobang had improved things somewhat, but the old guard still had the final say. Zhao made further changes, setting up a more formal order.

At the first plenary session of the 13th Politburo, Zhao Ziyang set up a system requiring that the entire Party central leadership should meet twice a year, the Politburo should meet once every two months, while the Politburo Standing Committee should meet once a week.

No sincere person, in or outside the Party, who really understands the history of the 1980s in China, could fail to cherish a deep respect for Zhao Ziyang—a deep respect which wells up from the heart, and which has to remain suppressed there.

All major issues were to be dealt with using this system, and the Politburo was to issue information to the news media on each meeting...This system was to be strictly adhered to. In all the time Zhao was General Secretary, I don't recall he ever called one "extraordinary meeting".

When the third generation of leadership came to power, this system quickly disappeared, consigned to the trash, possibly from a wish on the part of the China's new leaders to distance themselves from Zhao's legacy. Fifteen years later, I see that the 16th Party Congress seems to be following the example of the 13th Party Congress, and setting up a similar system once more, which assuages the yearning for old times somewhat, though it still makes me sigh...

China's overreaching and dominant social system was dictated by Chairman Mao. It's called "Party leadership over north, south, east, west and center; over Party, government, military, citizens' and academic affairs." From the time that he took office, Zhao Ziyang managed, step by step, bit by bit, to retrieve a little of the old order from out of the political babble that surrounded him, and to create a certain amount of new order, too.

Part 3. Creativity amidst the empty babble

During the stand-off between the People's Liberation Army troops stationed in Hunan province and the students there, government, prosecution and judicial departments all reported direct to the Standing Committee. They asked the Standing Committee what sentences should be imposed. Zhao told them: "...We have two words to say to you: legal process."

...As I recall from my time as political secretary to the Politburo, the Standing Committee and the secretariat, none of those bodies discussed a single "case" during Zhao's time in office, and not a single case of political crime was discussed, either.

But it did discuss a theoretical one. In 1987, someone put the case of a number of Party officials before the Standing Committee for approval, including a proposal that the head of the Marxist Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Su Shaozhi, be stripped of his Party membership, for the crime of "refusing to accept that Marxism-Leninism is the scientific basis of all sciences."

At the time I was attending the meeting in my capacity as head of the drafting group for the documents related to the 13th Party Congress, and I boldly ventured to chip in with: "Engels didn't accept that there was such a thing as the scientific basis of all sciences, either."

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Pro democracy legislators stand in silence for former Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang in front of the Chinese Central Liaison Office watched over by security. In the only Chinese city that marks the 1989 massacre that Zhao famously opposed, newspaper editorials eulogised him, while supporters rallied at the offices of the regime that kept him under house arrest for the last 15 years of his life. Photo: AFP/Mike Clarke

Zhao Ziyang turned to the head of the Party's Propaganda department: "And what do classical Marxist authors have to say about the scientific basis of all sciences?" The head of the Propaganda department leapt from his chair, humming and hawing. At the same time, a couple of old theorists who were present, as if by prior agreement, acted as if they had heard nothing, their mouths tight shut, not about to step in to help the younger guy out of a tight corner.

Zhao said: "Well if there's no clear consensus on this, how can the Standing Committee approve it? It's a bit of a joke. We won't discuss your proposals any further today." Later, I was approached by a member of the Party's Discipline Inspection Commission and asked to make it clear to Zhao that it wasn't they who had initiated these proceedings, that they had been drafted by an old Marxist theorist with the help of some intellectuals. But no more "theoretical cases" appeared on the agenda of the Standing Committee after that.

After the movie Hibiscus Town was filmed [dealing with the still sensitive topic of the Cultural Revolution], some in the Party approved of it, while others didn't, causing great conflict of opinion. One secretary asked Zhao for an opinion, to which Zhao replied: "I don't investigate movies; I watch them. If I have to issue a directive for every movie I watch, I think I'll stop watching movies."

After that, it became the accepted practise that the Standing Committee, Politburo and secretariat no longer concerned themselves with culture or the arts, thus establishing a limit to the Party's control.

The morning meeting had only just got under way, when Hu Yaobang fell forwards, lifting up his hand and saying: "Comrade Ziyang, there is a problem with my heart."

From 1949-53, the role of the Party secretary in state-owned enterprises was not clearly delineated. But their powers became strongly entrenched following wave after wave of mass political movements, internal factional struggles, and of course, the Cultural Revolution.

The economic reform program demanded that state-owned enterprises become "legal person" entities. Many Party secretaries wanted to hold onto their power, and were unwilling to take legal responsibility. Zhao suggested that the Politburo issue a decision: "Factory chiefs, in their capacity as representatives of legal person entities, are key personnel." The motion was passed, and change began to take place throughout the state-owned enterprise system.

A Party group [within an organization] in China was a peculiar entity, very different from those of the Soviet Comintern during its internationalist phase. A decision issued by the seventh plenary session of the 12th Party Congress specified that Party committees would gradually begin to disappear [from organizations and enterprises]. This had already begun to be implemented by 1989. I would very much like to know whether it has continued since.

After Zhao's fall from power, many reforms were halted for more than 10 years, and the process of reform was set back by 10 years. As someone outside the corridors of power, I don't get much news. Given that red capitalists have now been welcomed into the Party under the Three Represents, I imagine that that the Party secretaries in the enterprises have been denied an opportunity to fight a rearguard action against this reform.

But the Party's renewed detentions and sentencing of political dissidents, its tight control over and stifling of news media and publishing houses, has already become a core component of "suppressing everything in the name of stability," I fear.

Part 4. "The students' feelings and ideas are the same as our own"

In April 1989, what began as a commemoration by students of the death of Hu Yaobang, quickly turned into a much wider, pro-democracy and anti-corruption student movement. It erupted spontaneously, and no-one could have predicted it, not Deng Xiaoping, not Li Peng, not Zhao Ziyang. But I'd like to mention that on Feb. 16, 1989, Zhao was working with the entire secretariat, listening to opinions from the Party's central reform research office on how to clean up the government.

This was particularly aimed at the common phenomenon of government departments using political power for the purposes of extortion and racketeering. The secretariat demanded that all government departments set up transparent procedures, and make their results public, in order to preserve public opinion and carry out supervision of the government. The decision was published on the front page of the People's Daily the next day, a banner headline. It may be possible to look it up even now.

Hu Yaobang fell ill on April 8 during a Politburo meeting at which he was discussing the question of education. The morning meeting had only just got under way, when Hu fell forwards, lifting up his hand and saying: "Comrade Ziyang, there is a problem with my heart." Zhao immediately called ...for help, and Hu was saved that time. But unfortunately his condition worsened, and he died on April 15.

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Zhao Ziyang in July 1987. Photo: AFP/Files

The whole nation was plunged into grief. In a commemoration that took its cue from that for [former premier] Zhou Enlai, the students began making their way to Tiananmen Square in silence. Back then, in 1977, people were ostensibly mourning for Zhou, but in fact were turning out against Mao. In 1989, they were ostensibly mourning for Hu, but things were even more complicated. Not only was Hu a former General Secretary who had presided over the throwing out of thousands of trumped up criminal cases, but he was also a politician who was kicked out for falling foul of Deng.

There was a big difference between Mao and Deng, for whom the students had both good and bad things to say. The commemoration for Hu could not fail to reflect these factors. For some, it was a time to add the sweet and sour to the bitter and spice, a time of shame and anger. For others, it was a time to start cooking up rumors, or a magical time when even the dogs and chickens could become immortal.

Many in the central government were extremely uneasy at all this, feeling as though this was a dark hole where no-one could see the bottom. No-one knew what would happen. The students themselves were pure and naive...simply hoping that their feelings, grievances, and opinions could be heard.

It was very easy to label the students. Ever since the time of Mao, the only mass movements had been those orchestrated by Chinese leaders themselves, like those aimed at toppling a chairman, or ridding the country of "ox ghosts and snake spirits." These were legal, revolutionary.

Anything else was "the masses causing trouble", and by definition this had to be caused by "a small group", perhaps of "manipulators." And it was all too easy for "the masses causing trouble" to become a "counterrevolutionary rebellion." After all, this was common, everyday fare in Chinese politics.

1. Now that the memorial event is over, we should encourage the students to return to class. 2. We should organize a consultative dialogue with the students to address their demands and seek a calming of the conflict. We should not intensify it. 3. We should avoid any bloodshed. No heavy-handed measures should be used in the absence of any vandalism, arson, etc.

Zhao did not support such a divisive approach. Right from the start he had calmly and coolly stated that the students' mood in mourning for Hu Yaobang was "the same as our own." That their desire for democracy and an end to corruption was "the same as our own." On April 22 after the initial demonstrations of grief, Zhao suggested the following three points:

1. Now that the memorial event is over, we should encourage the students to return to class.

2. We should organize a consultative dialogue with the students to address their demands and seek a calming of the conflict. We should not intensify it.

3. We should avoid any bloodshed. No heavy-handed measures should be used in the absence of any vandalism, arson, etc.

No-one on the Standing Committee disagreed with this third point. Deng Xiaoping said he agreed with it. When Zhao went to visit North Korea, Li Peng saw him off. Li asked him: "Is there anything else?" Zhao said: "No, just those three things." On the television pictures of this parting, we all saw Zhao getting on the train, standing next to the window and making the traditional Chinese gesture of greeting and obeisance. Perhaps he was pleading with Li...

Everyone knows what happened next. As soon as Zhao had left, Li made a report to Deng. And on a single word from Deng, the People's Daily issued the editorial entitled "Against turmoil." And all hell broke loose.

Zhao Ziyang came back from North Korea on April 30 to find things had gone beyond his power to repair. A meeting of the Standing Committee on May 1 heard reports and exchanged opinions. On May 3, Zhao made a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the May 4th movement. The student reaction was positive, and the situation began to calm down a bit.

Part 5. When absolute power loses its reason, then the warning bells sound

On May 4, during a conversation on maintaining a good investment environment, Zhao told a representative of the Asian Development Bank that the student movement would be resolved along democratic and legal lines. This idea in principle was approved by three out of four Standing Committee members, including Li Peng. Only one member did not say outright that he approved it, but he didn't say he disapproved of it, either.

Everyone on the Standing Committee approved, and so did the president [Yang Shangkun]. The students approved. The whole of Chinese society approved. On May 8 the Standing Committee met, and on May 10 the full Politburo approved Zhao's proposal to broaden consultation and dialogue with every level of society on how to proceed further with developing a democratic system and rule of law.

The chairman of the Central Military Commission Deng Xiaoping told President Yang Shangkun in front of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang: "We all agree."

If my memory serves me correctly, around a dozen generals, hardened by many battles, signed a letter calling on Deng to deal calmly with the student movement. Talk about a consensus! What a marvel! What hope for China!

Since then, China's leaders have sung the same old song, chewed over the same old story, that Zhao supported turmoil and splitting the Party. I don't know where the basis lies for this accusation. But I do know that it puts Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and leaders of the National People's Congress in the same boat, and the whole nation too, because all Zhao Ziyang had ever proposed was to solve the problem along the lines of democracy and the rule of law.

So the Three Represents finally came up with a policy: Erase history! Wipe out Zhao Ziyang's name! Because when absolute power lost its reason, it was Zhao Ziyang who sounded the warning bell for the nation.

The day on which the weather turned nasty suddenly was May 17, 1989. Deng invited the five members of the Standing Committee and President Yang Shangkun to a meeting at his house. I knew nothing about this meeting. I knew from the television that martial law had been imposed in Beijing.

In the absence of any legal body to make a single legal decision, I was arrested and put in jail. Later, in jail, I learned from the newspapers that the crime of the students had been upgraded, from "causing turmoil" to "rebellion".

The People's Daily carried reports of Deng honoring the heroes who "suppressed the rebellion". It also carried an "important speech by Li Peng", in which he accused Zhao Ziyang of splitting the Party and supporting the turmoil. But it also said something about an "investigation". Ah, I see! First you decide on the crime, then you carry out the investigation.

I remembered that fateful Party Congress in which Peng Dehuai and Liu Shaoqi met with the same treatment that Zhao Ziyang was getting now. For the stability of the country, for the unity of the Party, we must trample the constitution, we must pervert the truth of history. That's "Chinese characteristics" for you.

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Zhao appeals to the student-led protesters on Tiananmen Square, May 1989. Photo: AFP/Files

At the time, Zhao's name was merely blackened, but not erased. Fifteen years ago, "denounce Zhao Ziyang" was the loudest sound in everyone's throats in the Party. Denounce his opposition to the use of military force against protesters; denounce his compassion for the students and ordinary citizens; denounce his support for democracy and the rule of law; denounce his very real progress towards political reform; denounce his attempts to improve systemic corruption; denounce his contribution towards economic reform.

Since then, some people have got even wiser, saying it's much better just to forget him, rather than to denounce him. To forget that Zhao was the driving force behind the economic reform program, that he created the blueprint for political reform, that he was a guardian of democracy and the rule of law, and that he was the only leader in the history of China's Communist Party who dared to honestly stand up for his own ideas in the face of the the immense power of the Party.

The Party's renewed detentions and sentencing of political dissidents, its tight control over and stifling of news media and publishing houses, has already become a core component of "suppressing everything in the name of stability," I fear.

So the Three Represents finally came up with a policy: Erase history! Wipe out Zhao Ziyang's name! Because when absolute power lost its reason, it was Zhao Ziyang who sounded the warning bell for the nation.

It's not the name that matters so much. What matters is the fate of reason and democracy in China. Zhao Ziyang has already sacrificed everything for these things, his last and final wish.

I understand Zhao Ziyang. Highly aware, liberal minded, an elder truly worthy of respect, now nearly 85 years old, and incarcerated among the alleyways of the capital.

The Three Represents makes me scared, uneasy, the way it is hell-bent on rubbing away the last traces of Zhao's name from the minds of Chinese people. It's all so carefully calculated, and yet they are standing in the way of 1.4 billion people who are striding along the road towards a society based on modern democracy and the rule of law.

Respect for human rights has already been enshrined in China's constitution. But since March 10, 2004, in a mockery of the constitution, someone (I expect on behalf of China's leaders) has taken away my right to use the telephone or go on the Internet, making it impossible for the media to interview me.

I hope that this article will go some way towards filling that gap, and allow me at least in some measure to exercise my right as a citizen to express my opinion.

Bao Tong

April 9, 2004

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