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China’s Warning From Beyond The Grave

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gather on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 2, 1989. The Chinese military moved in to break up the protests the next day.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gather on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 2, 1989. The Chinese military moved in to break up the protests the next day.
The history of postcommunist Europe and the former Soviet Union is filled with old party bosses and functionaries who say they have now embraced Western democracy. The sincerity of such claims is, of course, often open to question, particularly if the individual making them seeks to continue a political career.

But it is not every day that a former head of the world’s largest ruling communist party discovers that parliamentary democracy is the best way forward for his country and has his findings published posthumously. Zhao Ziyang, who was general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from early 1987 to May 1989, came to that conclusion about democracy during his house arrest, which lasted from June 1989 until his death in January 2005.

Zhao reached his conclusions for pragmatic reasons -- not because of any idealistic conversion or for reasons of opportunism, since the ruling CCP is opposed to any serious political reform and since his own political career was long finished. He had spent long years as a manager in the provinces and in Beijing, seeking to raise productivity and prosperity.

In the end, he decided that China will someday have to embrace democracy if it wants to join the ranks of the truly developed countries because economic growth is not sustainable without public supervision, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary. These things are essential to control the corruption that is a major obstacle to China’s continuing development.

These ideas are found in his memoirs, which he clandestinely recorded at home and distributed to visitors secretly around 2000. The approximately 30 tapes have been collected, transcribed, and translated. They were published this year as “Prisoner Of The State: The Secret Journal Of Zhao Ziyang.”

Refused To Support Crackdown

Zhao is officially a nonperson in China but is well remembered by many there and abroad as the general secretary who was sacked during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in May 1989 for refusing to support a crackdown that culminated in the June massacre of hundreds of protesters by army troops. He argued in his memoirs that he was ousted by the cranky, elderly leadership that had gained the ear of “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping.

The crackdown decision was made in a secret session that took place in violation of the CCP’s own rules because “I refused to become the general secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.” The party “elders” had already thwarted Zhao’s attempts to resolve matters with the students through dialogue and pushed instead for a confrontation, calling the demonstrations “antiparty, antisocialist turmoil.”

Following an early career as a successful economic manager, Zhao was strongly identified by the 1980s with the economic reforms launched by Deng in 1978. Zhao rose to the top party post when Deng sacked Zhao’s predecessor, Hu Yaobang, for wanting to extend serious reforms into political life.

What is particularly interesting about Zhao’s biography is that he rose largely on his merits and because of individual protectors rather than by belonging to a prominent communist family or being part of an extensive patronage network, as is often the case in today’s Chinese leadership. In 1971, Chairman Mao Zedong himself recalled Zhao from the rural banishment that much of the party’s nomenklatura endured during the chaotic Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Later, Deng’s support put him in the top party post -- and the loss of that backing sent him into house arrest for the rest of his life.

Zhao noted in his tapes that Deng, who died in 1997, was simply interested in making the system more efficient and had no interest in introducing changes beyond that. Zhao claimed that, by 1989, he himself had concluded that one-party rule and the communist constitution should continue, but that the CCP needed to change the way it governed.

The party should “allow more political participation from various social groups; "rule of law" would gradually replace "rule by men"; and many of the wonderful [rights enshrined] in the constitution would be realized, one by one.” These would include “greater press freedom,” but still “under the management and leadership” of the party.

Able To Adapt

By 2000, Zhao was ready to embrace the Western parliamentary democratic system because it is characteristic of developed economies and has proven able to adapt to shifts in public opinion; it is simultaneously the most stable and the most dynamic system.

“Why is there not even one developed nation practicing any other system?” he asked.

Failure to introduce parliamentary democracy in China, he argues, will lead to the situation one finds “in so many developing countries, including China: commercialization of power, rampant corruption, [and] a society polarized between rich and poor.”

But even in his memoirs, Zhao argued for a gradual transition, saying “the ruling position of the Communist Party could be maintained for a very long time” and “we should not rush to copy wholesale [a new political system] all at once.” He called for starting the process with “two breakthroughs”: the development of a multiparty system and a free press followed by the institution of democratic procedures and norms within the CCP itself.

One wonders, however, whether he really believed that such a slow transition was possible, given the speed with which one-party rule collapsed in Eastern Europe and the USSR once the reform process was set in motion. Zhao cites Taiwan and South Korea as possible models for China’s political evolution, but authoritarian rule did not last long in those countries, either, once democratic changes began. In the words of Hungarian political reformer Imre Pozsgay, “You can’t get the toothpaste back into the tube.”

Instead, what the CCP has today is technocratic rule by patronage networks and powerful feuding families that do not fundamentally differ on major policy questions. Real moves toward political reform stopped in 1989. What has emerged is what some observers call a new kind of hybrid state, other writers dub a mature fascist state, and the party itself still describes in Deng’s words as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The top leaders are all engineers, none of whom was educated abroad. And this in a party whose membership stands at over 73 million, or roughly the total populations of France and Belgium combined.

Time Running Out

Zhao nonetheless warned his countrymen that time was running out. He quoted the father of the Chinese republican 1911 Revolution, Sun Yat-sen, as saying that “worldwide trends are enormous and powerful; those who follow them prosper, and those who resist them perish.”

This quote sounds very much like “those who are late will be punished by life itself,” which has been widely but erroneously attributed to former Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom Zhao met in Beijing shortly before his ouster.

According to David Shambaugh in his book “China’s Communist Party: Atrophy And Adaptation,” the CCP leadership made extensive studies over many years of the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the USSR, which were summarized in a party decision in 2004. That report concluded that the Soviets suffered from long-term systemic flaws that ultimately stemmed from failing to continue the reforms launched by Nikita Khrushchev.

The decision recommended dealing with problems of any sort systematically and before they become too serious. The method advised was to adapt and adjust without compromising the fundamental of the CCP’s monopoly of power.

The Chinese party received a warning from abroad in 2006 urging it to be cautious. "My advice to my Chinese friends is: Do not practice so-called 'democratization' because it will not end well. ... Stability comes first. ... If the party loses its control over society and reform, there will be chaos, and that is very dangerous." The foreign friend was Gorbachev.

Patrick Moore is a freelance writer based in Germany. He was a political analyst at RFE/RL from 1977 until 2008. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.