Son of purged reformer Zhao Ziyang tells of China's 'shame', 25 years after Tiananmen

Zhao Ziyang's son speaks out on China's 'shame', 25 years after martial law was declared in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 8:39am

The late liberal leader Zhao Ziyang, who was purged for opposing the Tiananmen crackdown 25 years ago, never regretted his own fate.

But he was heartbroken that society became more corrupt than ever after his political reform plan was sabotaged, according to one of his sons.

After opposing the Tiananmen crackdown that killed hundreds, and possibly thousands, Zhao was ousted by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and party conservatives for allegedly "splitting the party" and "supporting unrest" - accusations he firmly denied.

He was placed under house arrest, where he was to spend most of the next 16 years until his death in 2005 at the age of 85.

The man who pioneered China's three-decade economic miracle became a political taboo, with his name censored from all official print and broadcast media to this day.

But continuing to ignore his legacy would only bring shame to the country, his youngest son, Zhao Wujun , said.

"It [rehabilitating Zhao] doesn't matter so much to our family, but it matters a lot to the country.

"There are many [unjust] cases like this in Chinese history … and you have to come clean one day, otherwise the next generation will ask why and how these came about. If you don't talk about it, it is a shame for our country and a shame for the Communist Party."

More than a decade of his sweat and blood was ruined in an instant
Zhao Wujun, youngest son

Twenty-five years ago today, Beijingers awoke to find their city under martial law.

The previous day, Zhao Ziyang - then the Communist Party chief - climbed aboard a bus near Tiananmen Square before dawn to make a tearful plea to student demonstrators on a hunger strike to leave while there was still time.

His enigmatic first message - "We have come too late" - has become ingrained in the collective memory of the tragedy.

It transpired later that a decision to declare martial law had already been made by the party's top leaders at a secret meeting at Deng's home.

The Tiananmen visit was Zhao's last public appearance.

His son said: "He knew how serious the consequences would be, but he couldn't say it openly.

"His last glimmer of hope to persuade Deng to have a change of heart had been extinguished." The next day, martial law was announced and troops opened fire on the night of June 3.

"There was one thing my father never regretted … that was his insistence on not killing the students," said Zhao Wujun.

He recalled his father's words: "This is my belief and my last step: As party chief … I have this historical responsibility to persuade Deng Xiaoping, even if he doesn't listen."

At the fourth plenum of the 13th Central Committee on June 23-24 - three weeks after tanks rolled into Tiananmen - Zhao was stripped of all his positions - party general secretary, politburo member, member of the Politburo Standing Committee (the top decision-making body) and first vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

But his son said: "If this were to happen all over again, my father would still do the same without hesitation.

He was very, very sad ...  he always felt that he owed Deng Xiaoping
Zhao Wujun

"You have to pay a price for standing by the truth ... and when you have your own moral pursuit, of course you have to pay a price … but he never regretted it."

Since Zhao was stripped of power, the party has endeavoured to erase him from public memory. After his death, People's Daily issued a terse one-sentence obituary for "Comrade Zhao", without mentioning his former titles, just above the back-page weather forecast.

In 2008, when the country celebrated the 30th anniversary of its "reform and opening", Zhao - the pioneer of market reforms that made it possible - and his contributions were omitted from official media reports.

"He was nominally in the party's top job. He was the army's deputy chief, he was in charge of the country's diplomatic affairs for 10 years, and now you say this person doesn't exist?" his son said. "They know they're in the wrong … and they can't justify their acts, so they don't allow people to talk about it."

Zhao Ziyang wrote to the party several times asking it to reassess the verdict on the Tiananmen movement as a counter-revolutionary insurrection and to explain why he was subject to house arrest. But his requests were repeatedly ignored. Zhao Wujun said his father was hurt more by the fate of the country than his own fall from power and was upset that the country had missed an opportunity to carry out political reform.

"He was saddened to see with his own eyes state property going into individuals' pockets … This only further confirmed to him the necessity of political reform," his son said.

After the crackdown, the fledgling political reform plans Zhao tried to introduce were brought to an abrupt halt.

Legislation planned for protecting press freedom was quashed and the consensus reached at the 13th party congress to separate the functions of the party and government was abandoned.

Zhao lived to see the consequences of rapid, unfettered economic growth in the absence of checks on government powers - rampant corruption, crony capitalism, one of the widest wealth gaps in the world and widespread social discontent. "He used to say, 'It's such a shame about this situation'," Zhao Wujun said.

"The things he wanted to do were abandoned … more than a decade of his sweat and blood was ruined in an instant.

"We have missed a huge historical opportunity to transform society. I don't know if history will give us another chance."

In the 1980s, with the blessing of his mentor Deng, Zhao launched many ground-breaking policies that later propelled China towards becoming an economic powerhouse.

These included dismantling rural communes and allowing farmers to sell excess produce in the free market after meeting government quotas, a move which unleashed a spurt in the country's productivity.

Another promoted the development of coastal cities into manufacturing bases, setting the country on a course towards export-led growth.

Zhao originally believed that economic reform alone would solve China's many problems. But by the mid-1980s he began to realise that economic reform was sustainable only if it was accompanied by political reform.

In Prisoner of the State, his memoir published posthumously in 2009, Zhao said that between 1986 and 1989, his ideal political reform for the Communist Party was to "modernise" the way it governed without compromising its ruling position. Examples of the reforms he had in mind were the rule of law; the separation of party and government functions; increasing transparency in the work of the party and state organs; reducing the party's involvement in society; allowing more political participation by non-government groups; and allowing more press freedom.

But even these met strong resistance from conservatives, who feared political reform would weaken the party and challenge its ruling position.

After Zhao was purged, his political reform plans were stalled and never resumed.

Just three months before he died, Zhao told a family friend in an account that was later circulated online that even if the Tiananmen crackdown had not happened, he didn't believe that he could have successfully carried out his political reforms, such was the resistance.

In his memoir, Zhao said when he was drafting the 13th party congress political report, Deng warned him repeatedly that "not even a trace" of the Western concept of a tripartite separation of powers should influence China's politics.

"What [Deng] intended by 'reform of the political system' was in fact merely administrative reforms ... none of these touched upon the most essential problems in the political system," Zhao said in his memoir.

Zhao Wujun said his father became increasingly upset about the consequences for society of the lack of political reform towards the end of his life.

He was concerned not only about corruption and social inequality, but also widespread materialism and the loss of moral values. "We could tell he was very upset … He saw the country becoming like this. Of course he was very sad," his son said.

During captivity, his father experienced a change in his political thoughts. In the past, he had believed reforms were possible under the one-party leadership, but he came to realise "there was no other path" than the Western parliamentary system.

Zhao Wujun said: "After 1989, he gradually realised that was not enough. You need a parliamentary system... even if the Communist Party occupies the majority."

If there was one thing that bothered his father until he died, it was his fall-out with his mentor, Deng, who promoted him, then purged him for refusing to crack down on the student movement, Zhao Wujun said.

His father "never said a bad word" about Deng, but also never regretted standing by his principles, he added. "He was very, very upset that things had come to this and he always felt that he owed Deng Xiaoping … This was the greatest mental burden in his latter years," he said.

At the time, party hardliners regarded the student demonstrations as part of an "organised and carefully plotted political struggle". The decision to declare martial law was made in secret by members of the Politburo Standing Committee at Deng's home on May 17.

As a last resort, Zhao wrote to Deng the next day, pleading with him to acknowledge the actions of the students as patriotic and to refrain from using force.

"Imposing harsh measures while a majority of people are adamantly opposed to them may result in serious repercussions that threaten the fate of the party and the state," he wrote.

Deng was furious over Zhao's choice and decided to remove him from the leadership, according to several accounts.

"In the end... they had no choice but to go their separate ways," Zhao Wujun said.

"Deng never forgave him that … at the most critical moment, he didn't support him.

"But could there be a better compromise? No, both had a different moral bottom line.

"This was where the tragedy lay."