Memoir describes failed attempt to avoid massacre

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Zhao Ziyang’s secret memoirs reveal the voice of a leader deposed for opposing the Tiananmen Square crackdown, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

“AT THAT moment, I was extremely upset. I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the general secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on students.”

The chilling words come from the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party leader ousted for opposing the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square nearly 20 years ago, in which hundreds died.

On June 3rd, 1989, he writes: “While sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all.”

Zhao had lost a battle with the political hardliners in the Communist Party, and the memoir describes in gripping detail how former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping summoned the Standing Committee to his house to purge Zhao. His decision to support the student protesters meant he was forced to spend 16 years under arrest in his courtyard home in Beijing until his death in 2005. He became a “non-person”, not allowed to receive visitors or use the telephone.

During his detention, he recorded his memoirs on some 30 tapes, marked as “Peking Opera” or children’s music cassettes. The tapes are to be published on May 19th as Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyangby Simon Schuster, although copies are already available in Hong Kong. It is not available in China.

The contents are explosive as they are the first genuine insight into the workings of the secretive group of men who make up the inner core of the Communist Party, based in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai compound.

The current leadership says the crackdown was a “disturbance” and says crushing the revolt was essential to ensure a stable foundation for the country’s economic growth.

Zhao sees no conspiracy in the pro-democracy movement and no evidence it was “counter-revolutionary turmoil” aimed at overthrowing the Communist Party.

“I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system,” he says.

Zhao’s last public appearance was on May 19th, 1989, when he visited student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. He urged them to leave the square and said police would use force if they did not. Standing beside him was his aide, Wen Jiabao, who escaped the taint of his allegiance to Zhao to become the current premier.

The memoir’s very existence had been kept secret, although there had long been speculation during his years of house arrest that Zhao was writing. When the Straits Timesjournalist Ching Cheong was arrested and jailed a couple of years ago, rumours were rife that he had been involved in trying to get transcripts of Zhao’s tapes out of the country.

The book is being published in Chinese by New Century Press, which is run by Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based publisher and son of Zhao’s former top aide, Bao Tong, who is under police surveillance in Beijing.

Like political memoirs everywhere, Zhao’s have an agenda. However, in terms of insight into the 30-year process of reform and opening-up in China, Zhao, general secretary of the Communist Party from 1987 until his fall from power in 1989, emerges as a crucial figure. There are lively examples of his rivalry with the veteran revolutionary Deng.

Deng is hailed in China as the architect of the last 30 years of reform and economic liberalisation. However, Zhao paints a very different picture, one of a double-crossing and cunning political leader. Zhao says by removing him from power, Deng, then premier Li Peng and Communist Party conservatives had simply ignored their own rules meant to prevent a return to the cult of personality that characterised the Mao years. The decision was made without a vote in the Politburo.

“Deng had always stood out among the party elders as the one who emphasised the means of dictatorship. He often reminded people about its usefulness,” says Zhao. Deng’s idea of democracy “were no more than empty words”; Zhao believed the cure for China’s problems lay in gradual but unceasing movement towards western-style democracy, something the current leadership has ruled out.

Zhao has long been considered a beacon of hope for liberal reformers in China, although the language of his remarks is still infused with the Marxist-Leninist thought in which he was raised, even if he lacks the rigidity of the true ideologue. “It would be wrong,” he says, “if our party never makes the transition from a state that was suitable in a time of war to a state more suitable to a democratic society.

“Of course, it is possible that in the future a more advanced political system than parliamentary democracy will emerge. But that is a matter for the future. At present, there is no other.” He died sick and lonely in his house in Beijing, saying: “The entrance to my home is a cold, desolate place.” But his astonishing memoir may mean his life takes on new significance.

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