Zhao Ziyang. Prisoner of the State. Trans. Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. New York: Simon, 2009. Print.
One could quibble that the translation of Prisoner of the State may be a bit dry in places. However, it miraculous that such a book even exists. Zhao Ziyang was the Chinese Premier under Chairman Deng Xiaoping when China began experimenting with free enterprise after three disastrous decades under state collectivism.
After the Tienanmen Square crackdown in 1989, Zhao was blamed by many Chinese Communist Party hardliners for supporting the unrest and spent the last fifteen years of his life from 1991 to 2006 under house arrest. He recorded his memories on overwritten cassette tapes. They were discovered, transcribed, and published, though apparently not on mainland China. This is an English translation.
After the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, there were good harvests several years in a row 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984. The rural areas experienced new prosperity, in large part because we resolved the issue of “those who farm will have land” by implementing a “rural land contract” policy. The old situation, where farmers were employees of a production team, had changed; farmers began to plant for themselves. (97)
This is a lesson that mankind seems to have to learn in nearly every generation. The Plymouth Pilgrims learned the lesson more quickly, in less than two years, because they were a settlement of about fifty people, not an ideological nation of a billion.
Zhao does concede that a government-directed economy might be a necessity in war time. He also notes that probably Mao’s biggest economic mistake was trying to make China self-sufficient. Once, under Deng and Zhao, the Chinese began exporting their products and importing things that they could not make themselves, the country began to prosper.
Zhao does tell in some detail about Tienanmen. He tried to persuade the students to leave, and tried to mediate between the demonstrators and the government. However, this time Deng was persuaded by the hardliners and hundreds were killed, and many more all over the country were rounded up.
This also tells us something about the Chinese military. It is an arm of the government, not a protector of the people. Around the same time, the government of Romania ordered its army to attack a few hundred people who were demonstrating in Timisoara. The Romanian general who was given the order refused, saying that his job was to protect the lives of the people, not kill them. When the Romanian Securitate (secret police) attacked the army, the army overthrew the government and Communism in Romania.
The Chinese generals were not as courageous and, ultimately, more ruthless. They followed the orders to kill unarmed, peaceful citizens of their own country.
Zhao also noted that the Communist system as set up by both Stalin and Mao was very similar to feudalism. He saw that his challenge was to help promote a modern industrial state. He also could see, especially after Tienanmen in 1989, that the feudalists in the Party were gaining power.
Zhao also recommended in the early eighties that the Chinese export things it can make. If they are successful, then they will be able to make more technologically advanced items later. That is exactly what happened. Even today the hardliners cannot dispute that.
Just this past week I was reading a newspaper which spoke about “China’s opaque government.” Since China is ruled by a party, much of its inner dealings and even how decisions and laws are made are largely unknown. At times such things appear arbitrary. Zhao wanted a “rule of law” rather than a “rule of men.” Those are his words, repeated through the book, but they sound like they could be something from an American Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
But in America, most such hearings are public.
Perhaps, then, the greatest thing that Prisoner of the State does is to give us a look into the machinations of the Chinese government. Yes, they were twenty years old at the time the book was published, now almost thirty years. But we rarely have had any look behind the scenes since 1949. for that reason alone, this book is something special.
Two things especially struck this reviewer about the way the Party at the highest level works. (1) Most of the Party leaders are paranoid. They fear the people and each other. (2) The hardliners are clearly on top today. It remains to be seen how long before the Party implodes or China retreats into its fortress mentality. Both things would be disasters for China in the long run.
How long will the current dynasty, the Party, retain its feudal hold? How can it maintain its mandate of Heaven?