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Legacy of Tiananmen Crackdown Lingers Over China’s Politics

June 4, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Analysts reflect on the life of key Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, who died in 2005 after being under house arrest for almost two decades and kept a secret journal chronicling the events around the Tiananmen Square protests.
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JIM LEHRER: And now a retrospective look from a key Chinese leader. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: It was one of the most dramatic moments in the Tiananmen Square crisis 20 years ago: a top Chinese leader going to the square to warn pro-democracy striking students to show restraint.

But two weeks later, on the night of June 4, 1989, those efforts of Communist Party Chief Zhao Ziyang and the lives of hundreds of students were swept aside by People’s Liberation Army tanks.

Zhao, disgraced and put under house arrest, died in 2005. Now his memoirs are being published, “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang.” Based on secret tape recordings, the book offers an unprecedented look inside the Chinese leadership as it grappled with the Tiananmen crisis.

For more on the book and how it came to light, we go to Adi Ignatius, co-editor and translator. He covered the Tiananmen Square movement as the Wall Street journal’s Beijing bureau chief.

And to Roderick MacFarquhar, who wrote the forward and is a professor of government at Harvard University.

Welcome to you both. This is quite a gripping tale. Let’s start by having you remind us, Roderick MacFarquhar, what is the significance? How significant a figure was Zhao Ziyang in modern China?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR, Harvard University: Everyone remembers Deng Xiaoping as the person who created the reform movement in China in the 1980s, but it was, in fact, Zhao Ziyang who was his choice as prime minister and leader as general secretary of the party during the ’80s who did all the work. He was the architect of the reform program.

Inside story of regime

Roderick MacFarquhar
Harvard University
It tells us from an insider's point of view of the really nasty, inside-the-beltway politics that prevailed at the top of the Chinese Communist Party.

MARGARET WARNER: And what would you say is unusual or remarkable about this memoir?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR: I'd say it's remarkable in a number of ways. First of all, because it shows the work that Zhao Ziyang did to institute the reform program, but more importantly, perhaps, it tells us in a way which we thought we knew a bit about, but it tells us from an insider's point of view of the really nasty, inside-the-beltway politics that prevailed at the top of the Chinese Communist Party.

MARGARET WARNER: Adi Ignatius, it really does have an insider's -- sort of gripping insider's tone, doesn't it?

ADI IGNATIUS, Co-Editor, "Prisoner of the State": It does. I mean, it's quite remarkable. There really has never been any kind of writing, any kind of journal that's come from this level. I mean, we're really peering back the curtain on one of the world's most opaque regimes and finding out, you know, how they really interacted with one another. It's quite extraordinary.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, from 1989 until he died in '05, he was under house arrest. How did he manage to pull this off? And how did you manage to publish this?

ADI IGNATIUS: It had been assumed by many that he was either too broken and bitter or was under too tight surveillance to be able to produce anything like this, let alone to produce it and get it taken out of the country.

Well, it turned out that Zhao was secretly recording -- basically, there were 30 cassettes, each about an hour in length, that covered primarily his years when he was in Beijing as premier and later general secretary and that really focused on what was happening behind the scenes in the lead-up to the Tiananmen massacre and then his years under house arrest.

He recorded this secretly, in many cases used tapes that were just lying around the house, tapes of Peking opera, children's music, taped over those, and then trusted a few friends to figure out a way to get them out of the country. And they did that. And it really took until now, four years after Zhao's death, for all of it to be reassembled, translated, and produced into this new book.

Chronicling the Tiananmen decision

Adi Ignatius
Co-editor, "Prisoner of the State"
Oftentimes in communist states, there is debate, but in the end there's a decision and everyone lines up, sort of the principle of democratic centralism.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Roderick MacFarquhar, let's go now to one of the most vivid recountings in this book, which is the night of May 17th of 1989. The students have been massed in the square now for, what, three weeks or so. And Zhao decides -- there's a big fight inside the leadership. He decides to go see Deng Xiaoping, the premier, to get him to intervene, essentially. But when he arrives, there's a nasty surprise in store.

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR: Yes, when he arrives, he finds that Deng Xiaoping has clearly already talked not merely to Zhao's colleagues in the leading Politburo standing committee, but also to a number of the elders with whom he made the final decisions to launch martial law.

And Zhao Ziyang quickly realized that this was a setup, that the game was lost, and that Deng Xiaoping had made his decision, and he was not going to go back on his original idea that what was happening in the square was tumult which could not be allowed by the central government.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Adi Ignatius, what struck you about his description of that scene at Deng Xiaoping's house, in terms of what it said about how Deng Xiaoping dealt with his senior leadership and vice versa?

ADI IGNATIUS: I think Zhao in his writing wants to make it clear that legal procedures were not followed, that this was an extraordinary grouping of people, as Professor MacFarquhar said. You know, it was the standing committee plus some elders.

So, you know, there are those who have said that there was a proper vote before the imposition of martial law. And I think Zhao is responding to those people, trying to make it clear that the way the decision was made, it was really the elders, it was primarily Deng Xiaoping himself, who really didn't even have a title and yet was the supreme leader of China, was really the emperor of China at that time, and wants to make it clear there's no credible veneer of legitimacy over this decision.

Now, another unusual thing is, you know, oftentimes in communist states, there is debate, but in the end there's a decision and everyone lines up, sort of the principle of democratic centralism.

Zhao didn't take that route. And he just said, "I'm not going to be the general secretary who calls in the army against the students." And, you know, he knew his career was finished at that point, but he just said, I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to carry that out.

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR: Zhao Ziyang made this decision to go down to the square because he was not going to be part of the imposition of martial law. He was not going to be a general secretary who went down with that on his historical record.

And he went down to the square to talk to the students. He was very emotional. And he tried to apologize and, in effect, to try to persuade them, though it was really too late for that, to vacate the square, because he had the worst fears about what would happen.

Legacy of Tiananmen

Adi Ignatius
Co-editor, "Prisoner of the State"
I think what this book shows [is] that, even at the highest levels, you know, there was another way of thinking, that there was the possibility of a peaceful solution to Tiananmen.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he was trying to warn the students? I mean, he says later, "The students didn't understand what I meant." What does he mean by that?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR: Yes, I think he was trying to warn them that things were out of his control and that bad things were going to follow. And he had to be opaque about it; he kept party discipline at least to that extent. But the students didn't understand what he was trying to say.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Adi Ignatius, back to you both briefly on this. So, to sum up, I mean, 20 years later, what is the enduring legacy of the Tiananmen Square crisis for China?

ADI IGNATIUS: Well, the China that Zhao describes -- this is 20 years ago. And, you know, in some ways, things have changed a lot. There is no emperor-like Deng Xiaoping figure any longer and, you know, there certainly have been liberal changes you can't deny.

On the other hand, you know, the fundamental struggle that Zhao lived through and that Zhao describes, it's this deal with the devil, where, you know, China is allowing its citizens to be economically active, to get rich, but they have to keep their mouth shut.

And if they challenge the state -- you know, people are disappeared there. People are locked up for advocating democracy. And, you know, in that sense, the Tiananmen legacy remains unresolved. That was a movement for transparency. It was against corruption. It was for democracy.

And I think what this book shows -- and this book will certainly trickle into China through various ways -- it shows that, even at the highest levels, you know, there was another way of thinking, that there was the possibility of a peaceful solution to Tiananmen, and that even somebody at that level was thinking about dramatic political reform for the nation.

'Unresolved' political issues

Roderick MacFarquhar
Harvard University
[China] believes that it's not just the mothers of the people who were killed in Tiananmen who've been demonstrating and asked for reconsideration of the events on that time; it's many other people they fear would like to see a reconsideration.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. MacFarquhar, fundamentally unresolved, though, for China?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR: Yes, fundamentally unresolved. And I think the legacy is there because the regime is taking extraordinary precautions about the anniversary, the 20th anniversary on June 4th. So it believes that it's not just the mothers of the people who were killed in Tiananmen who've been demonstrating and asked for reconsideration of the events on that time; it's many other people they fear would like to see a reconsideration.

And I don't see any reason, frankly, why the Communist Party of China shouldn't give that reconsideration, because they can blame it on the mayor of Beijing at the time, who gave a very, very Armageddon-type picture of what was happening to Deng Xiaoping, which led Deng Xiaoping to make his decision.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there, but thank you both, Roderick MacFarquhar and Adi Ignatius. Thank you.

ADI IGNATIUS: Thank you.