Zhao Ziyang was the Premier of China during the Tiananmen Square Massacre; during the student protests that led up to it, he worked within the system to moderate the government response to it, subverting conservatives who wanted official condemnations of the protesters in the media. He paid dearly for using his position to oppose state violence - Prisoner of the State is a revelatory translation of hidden diaries he kept during his confinement, which opens a window into the inner workings of the Chinese state.
Ziyang's downfall was the result of a final act of singular bravery - two weeks before the military marched into Tiananmen Square and killed hundreds of college students, Ziyang did what no other party leader had done. He went before the students and pleaded with them for moderation. Ziyang's speech reassured the students that they were not unpatriotic, and... asked them to please go back to school. Unremarkable? Please read on!
Ziyang's speech is amazing enough in that it represents an act of revolutionary nonconformity from the penultimate office of the Chinese government. Though it is in the first chapters of the text, it is put into context with the latter chapters, wherein Ziyang discusses his accomplishments, set-backs, and finally regrets.
Ziyang's speech came at the cost of his liberty, but it nearly cost him his legacy. After the speech, he was put under house arrest - a punishment which he repeatedly points out contravened the rule of law - and stayed there for the rest of his life, with occasional permission to go golfing, play billiards, or go for a walk in a park. Visitors were routinely turned away, and the few he received were searched on the way in and out, and watched while inside. Despite this, Ziyang managed to record his memoirs on audio casettes of children's songs that he kept for his grand children, sneaking out tapes with trusted visitor, whenever he had the opportunity. The tapes were later collected and transcribed to form the text.
Ziyang's punishment was not comparable to the ultimate sanction imposed upon hundreds of the students at Tiananmen. He could occasionally go golfing, or play pool (though the billiards hall was emptied before his arrival, depriving him of companionship). He never abandoned his principles or conciliated with his captors, only complaining about his illegal confinement as a way to illustrate the government's hypocrisy, and advocate for the rule of law. After one incident where he managed to slip his cordone to go golfing when he'd been forbidden, his restrictions were tightened, preventing him from receiving any visitors, leaving his house, or attending the funerals of close friends. Later, a doctor who'd come ostensibly to give him a physical suggested he ask to go golfing - his familiarity with the system allowed him to realize that the doctor would not make this suggestion on his own, and that it was an attempt to defuse external criticism related to his confinement during Jiang Zemin's visit to the U.S. From this point on, Ziyang refused to leave his house, even when encouraged to do so by an official letter that arrived a few weeks after the doctor's visit, relaxing the rules of his confinement.
Refusing to play golf isn't marching on Montgomery - but simply refusing to empower unjust authority is always meaningful. In this literal 'prisoners dilemna', cooperation was unethical - forcing a zero-sum outcome was the only moral decision.
What seemed to me to be the most fascinating question in the text is never explicitly answered: why did a person who believed in the power of the state, who had risen to his position because of his wonkish disinterest in the "cultural realm" (pg 198), whose proudest achievement for liberalism was to use narrow committee appointments and legislative semantics to limit a purge of liberal thinkers... why did he sacrifice everything for the Tiananmen Square protesters?
I think he felt responsible for the protest's popularity.
In the chapters on the Tiananmen Square protest, Ziyang notes that he believes that its popularity was due to a period of run away inflation (pg 34). He does not seem to believe that the pro-democracy/anti-corruption issues would have reached the critical mass necessary to mobilize if it weren't for the more charismatic issue of rampant inflation. About two hundred pages later, he gets around to discussing how his "inexperience" had caused him to make a mistake which caused run-away inflation a few months before the Tiananmen Square protests.
Under Ziyang's leadership, China had been experimenting with a dual market/planned economy, wherein goods were available at market value, and in limited quantities at state-subsidized prices. No examples are given in the text, but for instance imagine that you can buy a dozen eggs at the state grocery for $1, or a dozen eggs at an independent farmer for $2 - the problem is, the state grocery has a small and limited quantity. This created corruption - people in the state would buy most of the subsidized goods before they were available to the public, then resell them at unsubsidized costs. To fix this, Ziyang fought hard to further liberalize the economy, getting rid of subsidies so all prices were market determined, and raising wages to accomodate the rise - in what he describes as a lack of common sense, he forgot to account for the effect this would have on savings; by announcing that he was going to inflate wages and costs without considering savings, he would be effectively devaluing savings.
By Ziyang's estimate, he had forgotten about a trillion 1988 U.S. dollars in savings that were about to be considerably depreciated. There was a run on banks, and hundreds of billions were spent in panic buying, creating massive inflation. Ziyang argues that this wasn't 'real' inflation, since it was created by an artificial influx from savings. Surely he's forgotten more about economics than I'll ever know - but is there really a difference? I suspect that when Ziyang said inflation fed the Tiananmen protests, he meant 'My mistake fed the Tianenman protests'.
Backing away from his reforms in shock, Ziyang defers to his conservative rivals, who use the crisis as an opportunity to crush other liberalizing reforms, and restore the corrupt subsidy system. Too little is done to prevent inflation, and Ziyang is beset by rumors of his own political demise, as he becomes the institution's scapegoat. By the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, Ziyang is faced with only one choice within the party's norms - 'self-criticism' and honorable retirement. Earlier in the text, he had described in moving prose watching the 'self-criticism' of one of his friends, Hu Yaobang; a staunch social liberal, standing surrounded by the unelected elders of the party, weeping as he literally begs forgiveness for his liberalism.
Ziyang chose to eschew normal, and wear his conscience on his sleeve. He went to Tiananmen Square, grabbed a bull horn, and told the students to... calm down, go home, and wait their turn at the rudder of state. It sounds anticlimactic - but context is everything. He was an economics nerd who was ruled by his conscience. He was a hero.