Zhao Ziyang

Chinese leader who 'came too late' to Tiananmen Square

Zhao Ziyang was the Gorbachev that China never had, a symbol of the turn that China never took towards creating a democratic, pluralistic state.

Zhao Ziyang, politician: born 17 October 1919; Secretary-General, South China Sub-Bureau, Chinese Communist Party 1950-54, Third Secretary 1954-55; Third Deputy Secretary, CP Guangdong 1955, Secretary 1962, First Secretary 1965-67; Secretary, CCP Central-South Bureau 1965-67; Secretary, CCP Nei Monggol 1971; Secretary, CCP Guangdong 1972, First Secretary 1974; First Secretary, CCP Sichuan 1975-80; Premier, State Council 1980-87; Minister of State, Commission for Economic Reconstruction 1982-87; Acting General Secretary, CCP 1987, General Secretary 1987-89; twice married (four sons, one daughter); died Beijing 17 January 2005.

Zhao Ziyang was the Gorbachev that China never had, a symbol of the turn that China never took towards creating a democratic, pluralistic state.

Just before the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989, Zhao was arrested, along with many of his followers, and replaced as Secretary General of the Communist Party. He was last seen in public on 19 May that year when he visited the students on hunger strike on Tiananmen Square and, with tears in his eyes, told them, "I came too late."

Standing next to him in the bus where he was filmed on this effort to reach out to the students was Wen Jiabao who is now the premier of China, the number two ranking political leader in the Politburo Standing Committee.

What exactly Zhao intended to achieve by these words, which were filmed and aired on Chinese television, is something of a mystery. He arrived close to midnight, when the leadership, swollen by a group of retired Party veterans, had decided to declare martial law and send in the tanks after a million people had taken to the streets.

Zhao seemed to be pleading with the students to abandon their vigil before it was too late, but what we don't know is whether he really backed the student demands for democracy which, judging from what happened in the Soviet Union, would have spelt the end of the Chinese Communist Party.

Like Boris Yeltsin, Zhao had a chance to turn against the Party, stand on the tanks and ally himself with the people and the students calling for democracy. However, he never took it and instead chose to remain loyal to the Party which he had served all his life. As a result, he spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest, together with his wife Li, in the courtyard house in the centre of Beijing which had once belonged to the hairdresser of the Manchu Dowager Empress Cixi.

Although, occasionally, small groups of his followers gathered outside and sent in petitions on his behalf keeping his memory alive, the Party was successful at excising Zhao's name from the historical record.

His influence on China had been immense, especially after the death of Mao Tse-tung when, for 14 years, he played a leading role in pushing through economic reforms, starting with the first tentative steps to open rural markets and abolish the People's Communes.

He was born in 1919, the son of a prosperous landlord in Henan province who, as such, was murdered by the Communist Party during land reforms during the 1940s. By this time Zhao Ziyang had joined the Communist League and spent years working in the underground. Not much is known about these years, but he emerged into prominence as a political leader in Guangdong province. During the 1950s, he worked for its ultra-leftist Party Secretary Tao Zhu and was noted for being ruthless in pushing through the creation of the People's Communes.

After Mao said that people were starving because rich peasants were hiding the huge grain surpluses, Zhao took a leading role in campaigns to torture peasants into revealing their imaginary grain reserves. He therefore shared responsibility for the millions of people in Guangdong who starved to death between 1958 and 1961.

However, he appears to have switched sides after the famine and joined the moderates lead by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping who allowed peasants to grow food in small plots which they could sell on the market. For this, he was attacked by Mao's followers during the Cultural Revolution for taking the capitalist road and dismissed from all his posts. He was paraded through the streets of Canton wearing a dunce's cap.

It is not clear how badly Zhao was persecuted after this, when many of Mao's opponents lost their lives, but in 1975 he was appointed Party Secretary of Sichuan province, the most populous province in China, which had been the scene of violent battles during the Cultural Revolution. After Mao's death in 1976, he began to re- introduce the measures which had helped China recover from the 1958 Great Leap Forward Famine.

The measures were so successful at ending food shortages in Sichuan that there was a saying: " Yao chi liang, zhao Ziyang", a word play on his name which loosely translated means, "If you want to eat, seek Ziyang."

Similar measures that were tried in Anhui province became national policy after Deng consolidated his grip on power in 1978. Deng brought Zhao into the Politburo and in 1980, he was appointed premier with a mandate to expand the rural reforms. By 1984, he had dissolved the People's Communes after tentative trials in Sichuan and China's grain output had by this time risen by 50 per cent. Rural markets flourished and peasants began building new houses.

Zhao was also responsible for helping to father the special economic zones and attracting investments, especially export manufacturing jobs to the "gold coasts" of Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, which became the engine which has driven China's rise to become the world's third largest trading nation. Zhao was attacked as a Marxist heretic for pushing the theory that China is in the "preliminary stage of socialism" and so some people, and some areas, could be allowed to get rich first.

Political reform was in the hands of his superior Hu Yaobang but, in the late 1980s, they jointly backed a plan to launch serious political reforms. The aim of the programme was always rather vague. It included direct voting in the Politburo, elections with more than one candidate, more transparency, more consultation and individual responsibility for mistakes.

These ideas, coupled with the anti-corruption campaigns which targeted the sons and daughters of top leaders, produced a furious reaction. Hu was dismissed from office in January 1988 by a clique of aged retired revolutionaries but Deng pushed through Zhao as his replacement.

Zhao had only been in the job as head of the Party and the designated heir for little more than a year when the protests began. The trigger was the death of Hu from a heart attack and the students at Beijing's leading universities used the mourning for a national leader as guise for renewing demands for political reforms to end official corruption.

We still do not know the extent to which Zhao or his followers organised the pro-democracy protests and if he intended to use the popular movement to drive Deng and the other octogenarian revolutionaries from power. Deng and his cronies certainly believed Zhao was behind the protests which spread all over China. And, as long as Zhao was alive, the current Chinese leadership has always lived with the fear that his death could trigger another uprising against their rule.

Jasper Becker



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015