On Zhao Ziyang

When I studied at Qinghua University in the early 1980s, one day I visited neighboring Beijing Aerospace College and met my high school classmate. During our conversation, he suddenly changed topics: “Look at that guy! He is Zhao Ziyang’s son, who just ‘transferred’ from Nanchang Aerospace School to our College.”

Beijing Aerospace College was China’s top university in aerospace, but Nanchang Aerospace School was merely a three-year vocational school. No student can “transfer” from a vocational school to a top university, but that guy was an exception because he had the privilege of being China’s Premier‘s son.

It is true that “in all fairness, his children are not worse than other princelings of the same generation. Princelings from Beijing are no different than those from Taipei.” (Lester Lee) However, because China is not ruled by law, it is vital for any Chinese politician to keep high moral standards in the eyes of public, if he can anticipate power struggle inside the CCP leadership. You cannot stand up against or become independent from the mainstream party line (the paramount leader) with a low moral reputation in any authoritative political system. Zhao Ziyang was not ready to take the opportunity to become China’s ruler, and indeed, his children were one sensitive factor causing his fall in 1989. When he suggested punish his children (as an example) to save the CCP, that was too late, and was (correctly) regarded by Deng Xiaoping as a “traitor” of the CCP because that would put the whole CCP leadership before Chinese people’s judgment.

The other failure is his so-called “Brainstorming Trust,” or “Brainstorming Trust’s brainstorming trusts.” Most of them were self-claimed, did not know much about the Western politics, created unnecessary enemies inside the CCP for Zhao Ziyang, and abandoned Zhao Ziyang at the final stage. We now know that he had only one trust bearing political consequences with him: Mr. Bao Tong, his own secretary. How blindly that Zhao Ziyang did not abandon these political opportunists at an earlier time?

His third mistake was regarding Hu Yaobang. It was reported that he became angry when mentioning Wu Jiang’s book, published in Hong Kong. In that book Wu, a trust of Hu, indicated that Zhao Ziyang was with others to force Hu to resign from the CCP General Secretary position. I remember my conversation with Wu with a mild and honest impression during one Min Zhen (Democratic Front for China) meeting. Wu may be not accurate on Zhao Ziyang’s attitude to Hu, and Zhao Ziyang is right to point out that he could do nothing helping Hu, but it is unfortunate that Zhao Ziyang did not make effort to win back and use Hu’s followers.

These indications could partly explain why Zhao Ziyang did not seek to return to politics after 1989, despite many Chinese people hoped he would be back to public. When Deng Xiaoping died in 1997, the new regime had consolidated their power. Zhao Ziyang could only write a letter to the 15th CCP Conference that year, regarding the 1989 student movement: It was without grounds to define it as “anti-revolutionary violence”; it was not right to use military method to crack-down it; our people, army, party and government paid huge cost for the crack-down; it negatively affected our party-people relations, Taiwan Strait relations and our foreign relations until today. He again expressed his wish that the CCP could correct itself, because the 1989 democratic movement was not to overthrow the CCP and the PRC. He had no hope to return to the central stage where he used to be; he returned his original status as a PRC citizen, as a human.

Just one hundred years ago, on January 22, 1905, Father Gapon, a Christian socialist, led thousands of poor Russian people marching to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg asking Emperor Nicholas’ presence to hear the sufferings of his people. The Czar refused. He mobilized his guards and slaughtered the people on that “Bloody Sunday”, thus sparked the Russian Revolution.

Zhao Ziyang left the world with the hope that the CCP would rehabilitate the democratic movement and his status, “the earlier the better.” It is early to have a final conclusion of him. Perhaps in his last 15 years without freedom, Zhao Ziyang changed his mind/belief as a communist on some vital issues such as one-party system (as indicated by Gorbachev’s meeting with him in 1989). How did he think of the first CCP General Secretary’s fate and thought change (denouncing the dictatorship of the proletariat)? We don’t know. However, the current CCP regime buried his body with the ready conclusion of “grave political mistakes.” Since/if the CCP cannot correct itself, who will correct the CCP? Does Zhao Ziyang’s death end the era of China’s peaceful process of political reform?

History will tell.

Jing Zhao
Comparative Policy Review
January 2005