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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.

Originally posted to efraker on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 03:39 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Apologies for the length... I could have gone on! (16+ / 0-)

    I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what revolution looks like from inside the walls of the state. Ziyang writes like an economic policy wonk, but his actions resonate - he was truly a person who was guided by his conscience, and did the best he knew how.

    If you'd like to read his speech, or see a picture of him at Tiananmen Square, please check out his Wikipedia article.

    Participating in the Coakley truce. Too busy GOTV to argue. :)

    by efraker on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 03:39:20 PM PST

    •  I was in Hong Kong during Beijing Spring... (12+ / 0-)

      ...and will never forget a weekend prior to the Tiananmen Square Massacre when a typhoon was approaching the southern coast of China, the signal 8 went up. After a brisk morning of walking through pelting, horizontal rain to get some supplies for the weekend and taping my large plate windows with duct-tape X's, I settled down to watch TV from my Lantau Island apartment, separated from the protests by the reality of the complete shut-down of public transport, including the regular ferries to Lantau.

      On one channel, there was non-stop, live coverage of 100,000 Hong  Kong Chinese, marching through the rain -- man, woman and child, absolutely miserable as they marched through Wanchai toward Happy Valley. On another channel, CNN's Mike Chinoy was arguing with Beijing officials as they forced him to stop broadcasting from the capital.

      I was copyediting for the Wall Street Journal/Hong Kong at the time, and I had tons of reporter friends and colleagues that were in the capital to report on the unfolding events. As the cameras were shut down in China, you couldn't help but believe that Mother Nature was, as she does in most great novels, providing a stormy backdrop for the evil that was to come.

      As the reports that Chinese army officers were shot up with amphetamines; marched into the Square; buffeted by tanks; told to form two back-to-back rings, one to shoot in and one to shoot out; placed in a ring surrounding the square to prevent protestors from leaving; ordered to shoot; then ordered to stack the bodies of the dead, it all became inextricably linked in my head: the typhoon, the driving rain, the Hong Kong demonstrators, the infamous tank protest, the dead bodies, the journalist friends arrested, hassled, detained, ejected from China.

      And every time a tea bagger steps up to a microphone to bitch, in front of a sea of hate posters, I remember the gentle nature of those "dangerous" protest posters, bearing large, red characters that said things like "Li Peng! We're watching you!" and "Our eyes can see you!" and "Beijing Spring."

      And I can't help but compare folks like Limbaugh and Beck and Palin with the likes of W'uer Kai Xi and Hong Kong's Martin Li.

      I remember crying as I watched those marchers in the rain. For a completely different set of reasons than I feel like crying when my relatives, basically good people all, participate in local tea bag rallies.


      --Find me on Twitter at @mtownsel...

      by Melody Townsel on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 03:56:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good diary. (4+ / 0-)

    I read a review in the NYRB this fall and the book has been on my to do list since. Your thoughtful diary reminded me. Thanks.

  •  The blood is on Deng Xiaoping's hands. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Melody Townsel, danmitch, efraker

    He ordered the massacre, and yet he is hailed by many in America.

    Then again, we have war criminals from the last American regime roaming free and writing op-eds for newspapers, so maybe we can't expect too much from America these days.

    •  Deng Xiaoping reads like a pawn in the text (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mint julep, Melody Townsel

      It may be that Xiaoping had more culpability - I'm not sure - but from the perspective in the text, Ziyang seems to believe Xiaoping basically agrees with whatever the last person to come to meet him tells him to.

      He clearly thinks that Xiaoping was manipulated by conservatives into ordering a crack down - then being too proud to call it off when it was clear that it was going too far.

      Participating in the Coakley truce. Too busy GOTV to argue. :)

      by efraker on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 04:40:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good diary. Tipped and Rec'd. (nt) (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Melody Townsel, efraker

    Political liberal / Bible believing Christian / Lousy at litmus tests

    by VirginiaJeff on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 04:03:35 PM PST

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