It's still all about Deng, as Zhao has reminded us

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am

The upcoming 20th anniversary of the June 4 killings has largely been seen as symbolic. The bloodstains in Tiananmen Square are long gone; images of the student-led protests have faded from our memories.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of people in Hong Kong want the leadership to vindicate the June 4 protesters. Nevertheless, the truth about certain crucial developments during those two months in the spring of 1989 has been a subject of contentious debate each year as the anniversary of the crackdown approaches. With the ruling Communist Party bent on keeping secret the details of the handling of the student protests, many people have been resigned to the idea that the history of June 4 will remain incomplete for a long time to come.

So the launch in Hong Kong last week of the memoirs of the party's then secretary general, Zhao Ziyang , was a bombshell for Chinese everywhere. Not only do they lay bare the power game within the top echelons of the party in the lead-up to the bloody crackdown in the early hours of June 4 (for example, Zhao sets the record straight about the 'public hearsay' that the Politburo Standing Committee meeting held to discuss a military crackdown 'resulted in a three-to-two vote in favour'; 'in fact there was no vote,' he writes), they give further credence to the widely held view that it was late patriarch Deng Xiaoping who made the key decisions.

'The crux of the issue was Deng Xiaoping himself,' Zhao writes at one point. It is one of the key messages of his book, Prisoner of the State.

As the one who delivered the verdict on the early days of the student protests in the infamous April 26, 1989 editorial in party mouthpiece People's Daily, which branded them counter-revolutionary turmoil, and the one who ordered the troops into Tiananmen Square, Deng was the key figure in the crackdown. That fact will be controversial in some quarters when the issue of reviewing the official verdict on the protests is put on the agenda for public discussion.

Last month Tsang Yok-sing, formerly chairman of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, one of the precursors of the present-day DAB - the biggest Beijing-loyalist party in Hong Kong - caused a stir when he linked the vindication of the Tiananmen protesters with an assessment of Deng's role.

Speaking to students, he asked: 'Where does the buck stop? Who ordered troops to enter the city? Who had the power to order the troops to open fire? It was Deng Xiaoping ... is he now the people's leader or the enemy of the people? [He is] the chief engineer of China's reform policy, chief designer of the 'one country, two systems' formula. If you say vindicate [the Tiananmen protesters] without changing the verdict on Deng Xiaoping, can you do it? If you want to change the verdict on Deng, how far are you ready to go?'

Mr Tsang, a leading figure in pro-Beijing circles, is no doubt not the only one who has complex feelings about June 4 and the role of Deng. While people fully recognise the contribution of Deng in spearheading reforms since 1979, they face a dilemma over his mistake in 1989.

Zhao's last words will prompt people to reflect more deeply and thoroughly on the tragedy and, more importantly, the underlying reasons behind the demonstrations.

One mystery the late general secretary has taken to his grave is when and why Deng decided to part ways with Zhao, his reformist ally. His memoirs do not fully answer these questions, though the final section of the book contains his assessment of Deng's views on political reform - which differed markedly from his own. Although Zhao writes that Deng's belief in political reform was genuine, it was 'rather a kind of administrative reform'. He concludes: 'The democracy he talked about, the removal of special status for the leadership and the cleansing of feudal influences, could never be realised. They were no more than empty words.'

Unlike Deng, Zhao thought highly of the western parliamentary system. 'It is the western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. This system is currently the best one available.'

The post-Tiananmen development of China has, ironically, strengthened the case Zhao made for political reform. He said on one of the tapes on which he dictated the memoirs - one believed to have been made in the early 1990s: 'If we don't move towards this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy: issues such as an unhealthy market, profiting from power, rampant social corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor will the rule of law ever materialise.'

As well as filling in gaps in the history of events leading up to June 4, 1989, Zhao's memoirs lay out an agenda critically important to China's future development.