“You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn’t matter to us anymore,” he implored.
The speech would be Zhao’s last public appearance. Weeks later, army tanks rolled through the streets of Beijing after party elders declared martial law and soldiers shot an untold number of citizens at Tiananmen Square.
After breaking ranks from the conservative wing of the Politburo, Zhao was stripped of his powers and spent the rest of his days under house arrest until his death in 2005 at age 85.
Despite his ongoing belief in party principles, Zhao’s openness to reform and willingness to compromise with the Tiananmen Square protesters spelled his downfall from the upper echelons of China’s leadership.
In May 2009, Zhao posthumously became the first senior member of the Chinese Communist Party to openly criticize the government and the actions of his former colleagues with the publication of his memoirs.
Recorded on audiotapes smuggled out of his Beijing home, Zhao claimed credit for many of the economic reforms normally attributed to another party leader, Deng Xiaoping. Zhao also condemned Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng and other hardliners who “actively attempted to block, delay and even sabotage” any efforts to make peace with the Tiananmen Square protesters.
Rise to Power
Born in 1919 as the son of a wealthy landlord in China’s Henan province, Zhao was a member of the Communist Youth League and remained faithful to the party even after its officials killed his father in the late 1940s.
Rising through party ranks in the Guangdong province in the 1950s and ’60s, Zhao began experimenting with agricultural reforms that would become his hallmark. Zhao became the first provincial official to start returning land plots to individual farmers, disbanding Mao Zedong’s agrarian communes.
In 1975, Zhao was appointed to a provincial post for the Communist Party of China and sent to the country’s struggling Sichuan province where he set about loosening government interference in industry and instituted the same agricultural reforms that were effective in Guangdong. He proved so popular with peasants that they developed a saying, “Yao chi liang, Zhao Ziyang,” which loosely translated meant, “If you want to eat, seek Ziyang.”
Zhao’s actions impressed China’s new reform-minded leader, Deng, who had risen to power in the wake of Mao’s death. He inducted Zhao to the Politburo in Beijing and appointed him premier in 1980. With Deng’s approval, Zhao instituted a reformist agenda that would help usher in a new era of modernist policies for China that paved the way for its future economic success.
Zhao believed in breaking down the political and economic barriers that had isolated China from Western nations for many years. During his tenure, trade between China and United States increased dramatically and American companies became welcome investors in Chinese industry.
While Zhao was firmly rooted in the principles of communism, he argued that the nation’s economic success was intrinsically tied to government transparency and popular participation in politics.
In 1987, he officially replaced the ousted Hu Yaobang as Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party. In his new role, Zhao presided over a short period of greater political freedoms for the press, universities and the arts.
‘Students, we came too late.’
As Zhao became the party’s most prominent proponent of modernization, Li Peng and other conservatives of the Politburo grew increasingly disgruntled with Zhao’s policies, blaming him for the economic downturn of the late 1980s.
The catalyst for his break with party hardliners like Li Peng came in April 1989, when students and intellectuals galvanized support for political change upon the death of Zhao’s predecessor and popular reformist, Hu Yaobang.
Zhao took a moderate stance toward the demonstrators, asking the party elders to “affirm the students’ patriotism” as they mourned Hu. He urged leaders to communicate directly with the students about their demands in the name of compromise, noting that many of their demands coincided with his desire to end corruption within the government.
Some party elders, however, began to believe that the demonstrations resulted directly from Zhao’s progressive policies.
Zhao finally lost favor with his former mentor when he publicly announced that Deng, who was supposedly retired, still finalized all of the party’s major decisions. Deng felt betrayed that Zhao would discuss the inner workings of the Politburo so publicly, a major misstep within the tightly controlled party.
At a May 17 meeting, Deng ultimately sided with party hardliners and decided to declare martial law upon the city.
But Zhao sealed his political fate by dissenting, the only member to oppose a military crackdown on the protesters.
“To impose martial law will not help calm things down or solve problems,” he said that night. “It will only make things more complicated and more sharply confrontational. … The Chinese people cannot take any more huge policy blunders. … My duties must end here today; I cannot continue to serve.”
Two days later, Zhao appeared before demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.
In his now famous address, Zhao said, “Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary.”
He appealed to them to end the demonstrations in order to open a dialogue with the government.
The speech signaled the end of this political career and Zhao was already under house arrest when an estimated 300 to 3,000 civilians died at the hands of the military on June 4. His removal from power was “effectively a coup,” according to American diplomatic officer Raymond Burghardt, who was chief political officer in Beijing at the time.
Zhao only reappeared publicly in the following years to attend the funerals of party members or to play golf, pending permission from his party.