An Alternative History for China
What if the open-minded and progressive Zhao Ziyang had held onto power?
In late July, the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong released a trove of previously unpublished documents about Zhao Ziyang, the bold reformer who served as China’s premier (1980-1987) and Communist Party general secretary (1987-1989). Containing almost 500 documents that were smuggled out of China, The Collected Works of Zhao Ziyang, 1980-1989 (in Chinese) shows how Zhao led a decade of transformational economic reform and sketched-out plans for political reform. It cuts off shortly before he was stripped of his power and placed under house arrest after opposing the use of force against the student protesters in the spring of 1989. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has subsequently effaced his contributions; when he died in 2005, his short official obituary referred to him only as a “comrade,” not mentioning that he had helped lead the country for nearly 10 years. These four volumes, which are selling briskly, have renewed interest in Zhao’s time in power — and they offer an opportunity to imagine what might have been, had he not been purged in 1989. How should we assess his legacy, and what might China be like today under a Zhao administration, or under a leader who governed like Zhao did? —The Editors
Julian B. Gewirtz, Author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China:
Zhao Ziyang was a genuine reformer working within the system. The publication of the four-volume Collected Works of Zhao Ziyang will help restore him to his rightful place at the center of the history of China’s reform era, despite the Communist Party’s systematic efforts to blot out his legacy. We have always known that he was a reformer — but now, in rich new detail, we can witness how this leader operated, pulling back the curtain that usually shields the Party’s inner workings from outsiders. We gain new insights as we watch him in action as never before: peppering his advisers with sharp questions about their policy proposals, tussling with conservative leaders, expanding his initiatives to encompass both economic and political reform, and charming foreign visitors — such as the economist Milton Friedman, who praised Zhao at their meeting in 1988 for having “the temperament of a professor.
Indeed, although Zhao cut a striking figure with his Western suits, swept-back hair, and oversize glasses, he prioritized substance over style. He was unremittingly curious and far more open-minded than one expects of a leader who came up through the ranks of the Party. “My earliest understanding of how to proceed with reform was shallow and vague,” he acknowledged in his posthumously published memoir. “I did not have any preconceived model or a systematic idea in mind.” This attitude drove him to empower reformist officials and experts, demanding that they bring him the best ideas they could find and protecting them when they ran into trouble. Amid a policy brawl in 1986, Zhao chastised a leading ideologue: “You should be cautious when criticizing the liberalization of economic theory.”
Of course we cannot say with certainty what China might be like today under a Zhao administration, but his liberal open-mindedness and relentless commitment to advancing reforms even in the face of extraordinary difficulties are qualities that offer a striking contrast to China’s current leadership. Rather than blaming “hostile foreign forces” for a stock market plunge, Zhao likely would have tried to figure out how to fix the problem by reaching out to experts in China and around the world, as I describe in Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China. Rather than clamping down on liberal publications like Yanhuang Chunqiu, he would presumably have read them carefully, as he did with the World Economic Herald. China under a Zhao administration would not necessarily (or immediately) have become a democracy, and at least until 1989, Zhao continued to act to uphold the autocratic system through which he rose. But if he had been able to bring the same spirit of openness and rigor to political reform that he brought to economic reform, it’s not at all hard to imagine that Chinese society would be much more pluralistic, democratic, law-abiding, fair, and open to the outside world.
Zhao was the kind of reformer who seems conspicuously absent from the top rungs of the Chinese leadership today. He may not be rehabilitated for many years, if ever — but China would benefit greatly if its rulers today would borrow from Zhao’s playbook as they face the tremendous challenges of the present moment.
David Shambaugh, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University:
It is difficult to say with any certainty how China would have evolved had Zhao Ziyang not been overthrown in 1989. The ostensible cause of his purge was his refusal to endorse martial law and authorize the use of force to suppress the Tiananmen demonstrations (thus “splitting the Party”) — but even before that fateful Politburo meeting and his final public appearance in the square during the early morning hours of May 19, 1989, Zhao was locked in intense factional struggle with Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, and arch-conservative elders Wang Zhen and Deng Liqun. Zhao’s grip on ultimate power was never firm after he succeeded the deposed Hu Yaobang as Communist Party general secretary in 1987. Even paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was wobbly in his support for Zhao and his proposed reforms during and after the Thirteenth Party Congress that year. Without Deng’s clear support — behind the scenes and publicly — Zhao’s political vulnerability was exposed. During this two-year period (1987-1989), the conservatives smelled blood and did all they could to block Zhao’s reforms and undermine his position.
In this context, Zhao may not have survived politically even if the Tiananmen events had not transpired. Zhao and the conservatives disagreed about the nature of economic reforms at the time (recall the overheating of the economy in 1988), and they certainly disagreed over political reform. At a minimum, Zhao would have been locked in intense factional struggle and this quite likely would have compromised his ability to implement his bold economic and political reform package. As Julian Gewirtz correctly notes in his commentary, the comprehensive four-volume set of Zhao’s speeches and documents recently published by the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong delineates in considerable detail where Zhao was trying to take China (particularly when read in conjunction with Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang and The Tiananmen Papers). In essence, Zhao’s vision for China was one of simultaneous economic and political reform.
He explicitly rejected the view that economic reform had to precede political reform or that political reform was not necessary. In this regard, he held the same view as Mikhail Gorbachev, which was amply evident in their May 16, 1989 public meeting in the Great Hall of the People. Had Zhao remained in power and been able to pursue this twin-reform strategy, it is an open question whether he and China would have wound up with the same fate as Gorbachev and the former Soviet Union, or whether this strategy would have worked in China, where it did not in the U.S.S.R. The main reasons for such conjecture are that China’s economy was far more reformed and integrated into the international economy than the Soviet Union (and thus on much stronger footing), and the fact that Zhao’s model of political reform for China was one of “neo-authoritarianism” along the lines of Singapore plus de facto federalism (Zhao’s advisor Yan Jiaqi’s brainchild) that would fiscally empower provinces rather than maintaining the central government as the controlling organ and rent-seeker.
Zhao’s political model would also likely have permitted much more open civil society and media; tolerated some dissent; enfranchised the eight so-called “democratic parties” and empowered the National People’s Congress and provincial people’s congresses; established a Hong Kong-style professional civil service (Zhao studied this carefully and was embarked on this reform when he was overthrown); separated Party from government (dang-zheng fenkai); made the military beholden to the state and constitution rather than a tool of the Communist Party; more strictly controlled opportunities for corruption and strengthened the non-Party control mechanisms; encouraged greater “inner Party” feedback mechanisms; and proceeded with gradual direct government elections up to and including central-level officials.
This is my sense of where Zhao was headed. It may have worked — and if it had, China would have been far better off for it.
Read David Shambaugh’s full response, “Zhao Ziyang’s Legacy.”
Tom Brokaw, Special Correspondent for NBC News:
Following is an edited transcript of Tom Brokaw’s recollections of his 1987 Meet The Press interview with Zhao Ziyang, as told to ChinaFile. —The Editors
We were doing a lifting-of-a-curtain reporting in China, a country not that long out of the Cultural Revolution, and there was an enormous curiosity in America.
Everything was very ad hoc. We didn’t know what was going to happen from day to day, then, suddenly, we were told Zhao would sit for Meet The Press, which was almost unbelievable, looking back on it. He’s the only Chinese premier who’s ever done that. He was so at ease. He talked in Chinese, and we had simultaneous translation, but he kept a quart bottle of Tsingtao beer by his side. He drank two of them during the course of the interview. When he was off camera, he would reach down and take a big slug and continue on, and it didn’t affect his performance at all.
I think what we all thought, looking back on it, is “this is the new China.” We were swept up in the idea that there was a “New China.” Zhao was the face of changing China — we were finding people in backstreets, at the universities, wherever we went, who would come up to us and express how pleased and excited they were about what was happening.
At the end of the interview, I thought, “This guy could run for the mayor of Chicago.” He was a very skilled politician, very at ease with himself. What he had in mind for China moving forward was very heartening.
Zhao did not speak in rigid semantics. He was responsive to what I had to say. You couldn’t see it printed out in a Little Red Book, for example. The very idea that Zhao appeared on Meet the Press was remarkable, but I was not romanced by them. I was still skeptical because they still faced enormous problems. We tended to see things through the Beijing lens, but we didn’t know what was going on beyond the city limits.
By the time I was back in Beijing in 1989, Zhao had been purged. I was there for the beginning, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was there and the Beijing students were demanding their government make similar kinds of changes as Gorbachev made to change Russia. It was a pivotal moment in 20th century history. Here was the leader of the collapsing Soviet Union going to China and we didn’t know exactly what the conversations were all about.
I left right after the Gorbachev meeting and then Tiananmen blew up and I flew back and walked into a changed city. There was a big clampdown and lot of confusion about exactly what had happened that night. Tiananmen Square had been filled with a lot of people who’d been trucked in from the provinces. There was a huge difference between these young armed men, who had a peasant appearance, and the very sophisticated students who, by that time, were hiding out.
What I saw when I interviewed Zhao was that it looked like they were going to make a great leap forward, to borrow their language, based on his vision about what they ought to be doing. I do remember being a little skeptical because he was so urbane and so progressive and it didn’t seem to me that we were seeing much of that elsewhere, not just in the leadership, but in the rest of China altogether.