[This review was published in the Fall 2009 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 374-378.]

Book Review 


Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, Adi Ignatius, tran.s and ed.s

Simon & Schuster, 2009 


            Zhao Ziyang was the General Secretary of China’s Communist Party for the two years preceding the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, and had previously been in charge of China’s economic development as Premier.  He fell out of favor with Deng Xiaoping, China’s behind-the-scenes ruler, when he refused to carry out Deng’s decision to invoke the Army against the student demonstrators.  Zhao was removed as General Secretary and spent the remaining 16 years of his life under house arrest.  Thanks to successful efforts by the Party of obliterate him from memory, he is now a nonperson” in China. 

            In about 2000, Zhao taped about thirty hours of memoirs devoted mainly to the three years before his removal from power.  He distributed the tapes to various friends, who managed to gather them after his death in 2005.  A second set was found in his study.  One of the friends, who is also one of the people who edited and translated the tapes, was Bao Pu, whose father was imprisoned for seven years for allying himself with Zhao’s opposition to the declaration of martial law.  The present book is the first public presentation of the memoirs.

            The book has historic significance as one of the few “insider’s” accounts of people and events within the Chinese Communist inner circle.  It is no doubt of considerable interest to expert China watchers, and for the rest of us it tells us much that we haven’t known before.  The memoirs are strong in recounting a number of political and economic facts about China over the forty-year span between the Communist victory in 1949 and Zhao’s ouster in 1989.  Oddly, however, it is devoid of much that one would expect in a memoir: any introspection on Zhao’s part; any explication of the reasons for the positions he took, which he simply posits as desirable; very much serious discussion of the evolution of Chinese Communist ideology; and any description of the intellectual influences that (somehow) came to Zhao’s attention to convert him into one of China’s “liberals.”   These voids leave the memoirs surprisingly empty of intellectual and psychological meaning.  Nevertheless, there is much that perceptive readers can fill in.

            Born in Henan Province in 1919, Zhao joined the Communist Youth League when he was just 13, and the Chinese Communist Party itself when he was 19, soon becoming the Party secretary at the county and regional levels.  In 1951, he became the provincial administrator for coastal Guangdong Province.  The editor’s point-by-point summary of his life says nothing about what he did during Mao’s horrendous “Great Leap Forward” campaign (30 million dead, including 10 million in Zhao’s own Guangdong Province) between 1958 and 1960.  In 1962 and 1965, Zhao rose to provincial Party chief in successive stages.  From this history, it is not hard to infer that there was much blood on Zhao’s hands, although the memoirs never look back to that feature or express any remorse or ideological revulsion about it.

            Mao’s Cultural Revolution began in 1966.  This led in 1967 to Zhao’s being purged and reduced to laborer status until, typically of Mao’s inconstancies, he was rehabilitated in 1971 and appointed the Party secretary for Inner Mongolia.  From there, he rose again within the Chinese Communist Party, soon becoming a member of the Party’s Central Committee and (still within the years of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976) Party secretary in Guangdong and then in Sichuan.  Immediately after the Cultural Revolution, there was the struggle for power that led to the ouster of the radical “Gang of Four” and the vesting of ultimate power in Deng Xiaoping, who ruled for several years from behind the scenes.  Deng’s power, it appears, came from a combination of sources: his powerful chairmanship of the Central Military Commission; condonation from a pool of “Party elders” who had been among what Zhao calls “the heroic founders” of the People’s Republic; and a blanket of obsequiousness from everyone else (including Zhao), underneath which a fair amount of tugging-and-pulling occurred as people and factions contended on behalf of their own preferences and positions.

            The information in the memoirs about Deng provides the contours of the post-Mao period, even continuing to the present (despite Deng’s having died in 1997).  Deng threw himself behind two seemingly incompatible things: (1) the introduction of a market economy (euphemistically called a “commodity economy” to be less abrasive to the anti-capitalist outlook), albeit with the Communist government occupying what in much socialist thought would be called the “commanding heights”; and (2) an adamant insistence upon the continued exclusive power of the Communist Party politically.  Both of these features mark present-day China and, interestingly, Vietnam.  The Vietnamese Communist Party has clung to exclusive power while at the same time continuing the “renovation” (“Doi Moi”) that introduced a market economy in 1986.   Both countries have suffered from extensive corruption, which Zhao perceptively recognized as “power-money exchanges.”

            Conceptually, Communist China became quite a stew after Mao (which is not to say that it wasn’t one while he was alive):

            The continued political monopoly of the Communist Party has been consistent with “The Four Cardinal Principles” enunciated by Deng in 1979.  Those principles, if taken seriously, would seem a reiteration of hard-line Communist ideology. .  They were: “upholding the socialist road”; the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; the “leadership of the Communist Party”; and “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.” 

            At the same time, however, the leaders who overthrew the Gang of Four saw themselves as “less radical” than those four, and nursed the wrongs they had experienced when purged during at least part of the Cultural Revolution.  It is also incongruous when  Zhao tells us that the Communist Party had already “renounced class struggle as the central focus” in 1978, since it is hard to imagine Marxism, and especially Leninism, without class struggle.  Nor can we imagine Lenin, Stalin or Mao shrinking from killing en masse.  And yet, there has been a shrinkage in that regard.  The Tiananmen Massacre in June 1989 was miniscule in comparison to the millions killed under the Communist icons, and it tells us quite a lot about changing perceptions when it is thought of as a major atrocity.  Even Zhao’s 16-year house arrest (which was rather loose, since it allowed him some golf and trips within China) differs in kind from a bullet in the back of the head.  

            A further incongruity came when Deng and Zhao led the way toward a market economy.  That was bound to introduce “the wage relation” (so hated within socialist thought) and the sort of inequalities in personal wealth that any true socialist would abhor as a reintroduction of economic classes. 

            At the same time that Deng was encouraging the introduction of a market economy, he supported, first, the “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign” of 1983 to “weed out Western influence” and, second, the “Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign” in 1987.  This would suggest that he was unprepared to face the inevitable consequences of his policies.  It appears that Zhao, for his part, was for several years not fully conscious, either, of exactly how far economic reform was taking China from its Communist roots.  He must, however, have known it toward the end of his life as he came to favor a parliamentary system, an allowance of participation by parties other than the Communist Party, a more-and-more extensive private sector, and the “rule of law” with an independent judiciary.  Zhao’s tapes don’t reveal him to have been much of a systematizer, however, since he never explains what intellectual influences brought him to those preferences (or how such influences were able to come to his attention in the first place).

            What we see at work here is something that has universal application.  It is a classical example of how human beings find it impossible over long stretches of time to hold steady with any original conception; i.e., any “true belief.”  This is evident in the history of religions and of social-political ideals.  It appears that the only thing that is certain is change.  In China, Mao and the “founding generation” of Communists mixed a lot of thuggery and war-lordism with their belief-system, but they were the “true believers” if anyone was.  After a while, the ideas came no longer to be understood by those who followed.  The white-hot religious center of any belief-system fades and the equivalent of secularism creeps in.  “Pragmatists” and “moderates” such as Zhao are no longer tied quite so closely to the ideological lead-strings.  Their mouthing of the original tenets is conformist and opportunistic.  Eventually, they may break away altogether from the belief system.

            How this process is to be seen depends on where you are on the given historical spectrum.  To the “true believers” the erosion is despicable, an example of gross dishonesty, and they are likely to seek a recommitment to the original ideals, such as through a “cultural revolution” or an “anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign.”  To the pragmatists, life with its many contending interests is more important than the ideas, which need to be pulled into whatever shape seems expedient.  (Or if they secretly hate the ideas, they allow themselves to be covertly subversive of them.)  The true believers are easier to understand, because they are straight-forward about what they believe.  Those who follow are rather opaque, since it’s never quite certain how strong their attachment is to the original ideas. 

            Which is best would seem to depend upon what we are talking about.  In the case of  Chinese Communism, only the Communists themselves would think it worthwhile to hold onto the vision.  Others will recall the gross brutalities and millions of dead, and thus honor those who, like Zhao, marched to a different drummer. 

            Surely, Zhao does not deserve, however, to be placed in the pantheon of great liberals.  For several decades, he took part in unspeakable enormities, for which he later mentions no remorse (which is a difficult psychology to grasp, since in so many ways he comes across as quite a decent sort).  He played an important role in the later mitigation of enormities of that kind, but continued all along to give obsequious homage to the powers-that-be and to the earlier icons.  It is to his credit that that homage was accompanied by several years of letter-writing to Deng and his successors urging compliance with what Zhou somewhat quixotically thought to be “a socialist rule of law.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Dwight D. Murphey