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

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