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The Secret Memoirs of a Dead Chinese Premier

15/05/09May 15, 2009

With only a couple of weeks to go until the twentieth anniversary of the massacre on Tian'anmen Square on June 4, a new book is coming out: "Prisoner of the State: The Secret Memoirs of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang". Zhao Ziyang died four years ago, after being purged in 1989 and spending the rest of his life under house arrest. It was then that he secretly tape-recorded his memories of his career in the party and particularly the controversial weeks in 1989, when he was in favour of negotiating with the protesting students.

Zhao Ziyang visiting protesting students on Tian'anmen Square, May 1989
Zhao Ziyang visiting protesting students on Tian'anmen Square, May 1989Image: AP

Having been the Chinese premier for much of the eighties, Zhao Ziyang was party chief in 1989, when students and other citizens held a protest campaign in central Beijing against corruption, calling also for more political participation. Their movement was brutally suppressed by the army on June 4. The Chinese leadership claims to the present day that the clampdown was necessary to prevent the overthrow of the government. On the tapes, which have now become public, Zhao Ziyang questions this view:

"First, it was determined then that the student movement was 'a planned conspiracy' of anti-Party, anti-socialist elements with leadership. So now we must ask, who were these leaders? What was the plan? What was the conspiracy? What evidence exists to support this? And can it be proven that the June Fourth movement was 'counterrevolutionary turmoil', as it was designated? The students were orderly. Many reports indicate that on the occasions when the People’s Liberation Army came under attack, in many incidents it was the students who had come to its defence. Large numbers of city residents blocked the PLA from entering the city. Why? Were they intent on overthrowing the republic?"

Sympathy for the protesting students

Zhao Ziyang was a political reformer, a liberal, who was sidelined by the other party leaders during the students' protests in 1989. When he understood that the party wasn't going to tolerate the demonstrations any longer, Zhao Ziyang headed to Tian'anmen Square to warn the demonstrators:

"Students, we have come quite late", he admitted. "If you criticize us now, you have every right. I am not asking you to forgive us. I am just pointing out that your bodies must have become very weak after all this."

When the pictures of the party chief, so obviously showing his sympathy with the students, spread around the world, the politbureau members were furious. Only one day after he appeared before the students on the square, Zhao Ziyang was purged and put under house arrest. It was in his house, heavily guarded, that Zhao witnessed the army tanks clearing Tian'anmen Square from the demonstrators on June 4.

"On the night of June 3rd, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire", Zhao remembered. "A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all."

Claiming credit for reforms

The Tian'anmen incident is still a taboo in China, and coming just before its twentieth anniversary, Zhao's book is particularly embarrassing for the party leadership. Zhao Ziyang blames not only hardliner Li Peng for the Tian'anmen massacre, but also veteran leader Deng Xiaoping.

Besides, he claims many of China's economic reforms were his initiatives, rather than Deng's; and he also argues that China should introduce parliamentary democracy. When Zhao's book is officially launched in English next week, many parts of it are likely to be hotly debated. But it is not going to be available in the People's Republic of China any time soon.

Author: Thomas Bärthlein
Editor: Grahame Lucas