Zhao Ziyangs Idea for China
By Frank Ching
The publication of the secretly recorded memoirs of former Chinese party leader Zhao Ziyang, who spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest for opposing the crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, provides a rare glimpse into how elite politics works in China.
The memoirs show that, as widely suspected, Deng Xiaoping was the one who decided to call in the troops even though he was formally not the head of state, of the party or even of the government. But he was the country's supreme leader, which reflected the abnormal state that the country was in at the time.
Deng Xiaoping made an ineradicable contribution to China after he came to power following the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. Mao had put his personal imprint on the country from the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 until his death in 1976.
Under Mao, China supported revolutionary movements around the world and, within China, there was one political campaign after another with millions of deaths.
Deng himself was purged twice by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and so had much time to meditate on what was keeping China backward at a time when other Asian societies were moving forward.
And so, in 1978, he changed the country's course so that modernization became the central task of the Communist Party. Class struggle, like world revolution, was jettisoned.
When the student demonstrations erupted in spring 1989, Deng saw them as a threat to the party's monopoly on power. He did not hesitate to call in the troops to crush the peaceful protests. And when his right-hand man, 69-year-old Zhao Ziyang, refused to go along, Deng got rid of him as well.
Zhao was put under house arrest for the remainder of his life, until his death in January 2005. During this period of enforced idleness, Zhao was able to ponder China's past, present and future.
Deng, when sidelined by Mao, developed a vision of China as a modern country under the control of the Communist Party. Zhao, under house arrest, also thought long and hard about the country's future direction. Interestingly, his conclusion was diametrically opposed to that of Deng.
While Deng wanted China to remain a one-party state, Zhao concluded that China's only possible course was democracy.
In his secretly taped memoirs, Zhao said that in 1989, when he was the party leader, he did not ``think that the Communist Party's ruling position should change.'' However, he did think that ``the way it governed had to be changed'' and, instead of ``rule by men'' there should be ``rule of law.''
However, after years of contemplation, his position changed radically. ``The Western parliamentary democratic system," he decided, was superior to Communist Party rule.
``Almost all developed nations have adopted a parliamentary democracy,'' he wrote. ``Why is there not even one developed nation practicing any other system?''
If China does not adopt such a system, he argued, it would be faced with such problems as commercialization of power, rampant corruption, a society polarized between rich and poor.
All this, of course, is contrary to Deng's vision for China, which is shared by the country's current leaders. To them, a parliamentary system, with checks and balances, must be avoided at all costs.
But even if China's leaders today cannot accept Zhao's ultimate conclusions, they can learn from some of his other ideas.
Zhao pointed out that the Chinese constitution is good but the problem is ``there were no laws in place to support its implementation. That is why many of the citizens' rights defined in the constitution could not be realized."
That is an accurate description of the situation today. The constitution, for example, declares in Article 35: ``Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.''
This sounds very good in principle; in practice, however, Chinese citizens do not enjoy such freedoms. No laws have been enacted to implement these principles.
Beijing has in recent years highlighted its support for human rights by putting into the constitution a clause that says, ``The State respects and preserves human rights.''
However, saying it is one thing, putting it into practice is another.
Legislation is needed to ensure that rights and freedoms stipulated in the constitution are observed in real life. If China's leaders are willing to accept this one idea from Zhao, it would greatly improve the lot of the Chinese people.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator in Hong Kong. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.