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Purged Chinese Communist chief wrote secret memoir

Zhao Ziyang, who reached out to Tiananmen protesters in 1989, issues a posthumous call for democracy. The book is not available in China, but readers are getting excerpts on the Internet.

May 16, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Despite the Chinese government's intent to keep the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square out of public discourse, audio recordings and excerpts of a memoir by the Communist Party chief who was purged for opposing it have begun circulating quietly on the Internet.

Before his death in 2005, Zhao Ziyang secretly recorded 30 hours of tapes that have been turned into a memoir, "Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang."

Among his revelations, Zhao contradicts the widely held belief that the Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo made a formal vote to call in the military. And he lays out clearly the defiance that got him sacked.

"I refused to become the general secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students," Zhao declares.

The last time Zhao was seen in public was the early morning of May 19, 1989, at Tiananmen Square. With a bullhorn in hand and tears in his eyes, Zhao, who had resigned as premier two years earlier to focus on his job as party chief, begged demonstrating students to end their hunger strike. Later that day, Premier Li Peng called in the military, leading to the events of June 4, when soldiers killed hundreds of protesters.

The memoir is clearly intended as something of a manifesto for change. In his last year, the tapes reveal, Zhao became more convinced that China could not become a successful market economy without allowing democracy.

"In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality," he says.

Although it is hardly sensational stuff, tell-all memoirs by China's Communist Party chieftains are unheard of. The release of the memoir also comes at a sensitive time for Beijing, which is struggling to prevent this clumsily buried history from intruding on the present.

"It's the first time a top Chinese Communist Party leader has done such a thing," said Perry Link, a scholar blacklisted from China since he co-edited "The Tiananmen Papers," a collection of government documents. He said in response to an e-mail that Zhao's book didn't plow much new ground for scholars, but that it "stands out for the palpable passion and the timing."

The government has made it clear that it will tolerate no commentary, much less commemorations, on the 20th anniversary of the crackdown. At the same time, it is trying to contain the fallout from a pro-democracy petition known as Charter 08 that gathered more than 8,000 signatures before being zapped from the Internet.

"Prisoner of the State" is not on sale in China, other than in Hong Kong, and is not likely to be any time soon. Nevertheless, excerpts and audio clips were circulating over the Web on Friday a few hours after the book's release by Simon & Schuster.

The Washington Post put excerpts in English and Chinese onto its website, which many readers in China appeared to be downloading.

"Years ago, when Zhao died, I was thinking that he might leave something for descendants," an anonymous Chinese reader commented over Twitter. "Now, it finally comes out and it is really precious."

Creating the memoir involved much subterfuge. Under house arrest, Zhao was too closely watched to spend his days writing. Instead he produced audio journals, recording over tapes of Chinese opera and children's songs, the book's preface says. The tapes were given to trusted friends.

"Although Zhao now speaks from the grave, his voice has the moral power to make China sit up and listen," Adi Ignatius, editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review, wrote in the preface.

The subject of the 1989 protests is so sensitive that search engines in China block the words "Tiananmen Square" and the number combination "6-4," often used as code for June 4. An ad commemorating victims was recently pulled from a newspaper. It showed a group of people looking toward the sky, "6" on one side and "4" on the other.

The San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights group, reported this week that 30 people were still serving sentences for participating in the protests. A former student leader, Zhou Yongjun, who has lived in the U.S. since 1993, was arrested in October after returning to China to visit his elderly parents, family members said Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch also reported that larger numbers of Chinese who had smaller roles in the demonstrations continued to be harassed.

"The battle over memory and forgetting is still going on," said Phelim Kine, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.


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