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Exclusive – interview with author of Chinese PM’s memoirs

Secret recordings resurrect Chinese PM’s criticism of Tiananmen crackdown

Article published on the 2009-05-15 Latest update 2009-05-21 12:34 TU

A man reads a copy of Zhao Ziyang's memoirs in Hong Kong.(Photo: AFP)

A man reads a copy of Zhao Ziyang's memoirs in Hong Kong.
(Photo: AFP)

It’s the first time that a senior Chinese Communist Party member will speak out publicly against the government’s bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. But he’s doing so from the safety of the grave. Former Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang secretly recorded his voice during the crisis and these tapes will be released in posthumous memoirs later this month.

Zhao was purged as Communist Party Chief in 1989, just days before the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and placed under house arrest for his alleged sympathies with the student demonstrators. He was last seen in public on 19 May that year when he visited the students in Tiananmen Square and, with tears in his eyes, told them, "I came too late."

 “On the night of 3 June, I was relaxing with my family in the garden. I heard gunfire on the streets outside. And I thought that the tragedy was now definitely going to happen.”

                                                                              Zhao Ziyang


The recordings are the first time we’ve heard Zhao's voice since. In the recordings Zhao says he can hear gunshots ringing out and can only assume that the deadly repression he argued so passionately against is taking place.

The tapes also contain justifications, and pleas for leniency, with Zhao saying that reforms were necessary to diffuse the protests – something that the communist hardliners in the Party leadership wouldn’t accept. They claimed that the protestors were incited by Zhao’s aggressive pace of economic reform, and stability was needed.

What was their aim? Was it to overthrow the republic and to subvert the Communist Party? There are no documents to prove that. I said at the time that there were many people who wanted us to correct our mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that they want to completely change our system.

                                                                          Zhao Ziyang


Bao Pu inherited these tapes from his father, who was Zhao’s secretary before his arrest. He compiled and translated them into English, and will release them later this month under the title Prisoner of State.

Their publication threatens to send shockwaves through Chinese society where Zhao’s name remains taboo, and even a mention of him in the press provokes severe government reaction.

“He showed that he tried very hard to diffuse tensions, but was unable to do so for reasons that actually have something to do with the inner-party political struggle,” Bao told RFI.

Report: Zhao Ziyang's memoirs

15/05/2009 by Jan van der Made


Zhao strove to reform the Communist Party in China much as Gorbechov did in the USSR. He wanted to free up debate in order to reform the system, not to overthrow it.

But the debates that Zhao encouraged split the leadership. “Unfortunately, because of the system that requires total consensus, the debate took the form of power politics.”

Zhao fought the house arrest for years but his strict confinement from friends and acquaintances in a villa in central Beijing was maintained until his death in 2005.

“They used the official investigation as a pretext that the investigation is not over and they denied all visits,” Bao said.

He maintained that the students’ charge of state corruption was a weak criticism, one that proved that they had no real intention of overthrowing the state.

“At that time, purchasing power was a big problem. A problem that went right to the heart of the reform policy. If the students really wanted massive popular support, they could have raised that problem. Why didn’t they do that?”

                                                                             Zhao Ziyang


Bao hopes that current Chinese leaders will read the memoirs - which will be published in Hong Kong, though probably not in mainland China - and recognise that they cannot bury the past forever.

“I hope this will give them a chance – whatever their views are – to reflect on what happened. As today’s leaders they are not responsible for the bloodshed twenty years ago. But they [can] show that there’s a burden. And I hope that they will take a moment and read this and think again.”

Full interview with Bao Pu

15/05/2009 by Jan van der Made