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Prisoner of the State No More -- A Tiananmen Era Memoir Surfaces

Tell all memoirs by Chinese Communist Party leaders are simply unheard of. That's why the discovery of secret journals kept by former Premier Zhao Ziyang are particularly extraordinary. Zhao was not only the primary architect of the financial reforms that led to China's current global economic status, he was also the sole voice urging restraint in the use of violence against protesters in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago this month. Because of that, he spent his last years under house arrest. His recently discovered journals, smuggled out on cassette tapes, now allow for unprecedented insights into the workings of the Chinese government and an opportunity for a new generation to ponder his conclusions that for China to thrive economic growth must be tempered with democracy. It's fitting that on the 20th anniversary of the massacre he couldn't prevent, his voice is heard once again. And that's largely due to the work of journalist Adi Ignatius. Prisoner of the State was released last month prompting Time magazine to conclude "Zhao may be more dangerous in death than he was in life."


CS: Why are these memoirs such an important find?

AI: It had always been assumed that after Zhao lost his position in the party, and spent the last 16 years of life under house arrest, that he had never really had his final say. And it was assumed he was too broken and bitter or under such tight surveillance that he would have not recorded a memoir--let alone got it out of the country. He secretly recorded 30 hours of tape and what that does is interject Zhao's voice back into the dialogue in China about what can be in society; what is the role of political reform in terms of developing the economy; in terms of dealing with corruption, in terms of improving people's quality of life? It will be interesting for many Chinese to suddenly realize this point of view was not only out there but held by someone at the highest levels of power. And I think its confirmation in many ways-a valuable confirmation-of some of what we could only guess was happening behind the scenes. China is different now, there is no emperor but still the paradox of Deng Xiaopingism--economic reform but no political liberty--that was set in stone and that is still what informs the leadership today.

CS: How did you get involved with their publication?

IA: Several people helped Zhao smuggle the tapes he recorded out of Beijing to Hong Kong through very complicated routes that still can't be talked about. The person in Hong Kong who pulled it all together was Bao Pu whose father Bao Tong was Zhao's top aide and who continues to live in Beijing under his own form of house arrest. So Bao Pu brought me in a couple years ago because he wanted a western journalist who could help could polish the translation and write accompanying material that set this memoir in context for readers. So we shared this secret for a couple of years before it finally broke a month ago.

CS: Why did you choose to release this in May?

AI: It would have been impossible to have produced this any earlier. It really took 4 years after Zhao's death to get everything together and organized and translated. Once we realized it was ready we thought that the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen would be a good time.

CS: What has been the reaction--if any--from the Chinese government?

IA: The Chinese language version has been published in Hong Kong and has been an incredible sell out--there's a virtual paper shortage because of demand for this book. Copies will make their way to the mainland more and more. On the internet--to the extent that people can have these discussions safely--they are starting to happen. The people who need to know about this will learn about it; either they will get a copy or there will be translated versions online and Zhao's ideas will trickle to China and add to the debate people are having. Officially the government steered clear so far and I would guess they don't want to create publicity for it.

CS: As tell-all memoirs go there aren't many sensationalist revelations or shocking passages, at least not for the Western reader who might expect a bit more intrigue and controversy?

IA: I guess that's fair enough. What concerns the Chinese government the most is that Zhao is essentially arguing that there was no need to bring in the troops and to kill--at the very least--hundreds in Beijing. And that in a sense would pull at the legitimacy of the current government which is a successor government to the people who carried out Tiananmen and that booted Zhao out of office. What also concerns the Chinese is what the book says about the role of Deng Xiaoping . Deng still has an unnaturally high place in the government's legitimacy. People who have read it say that Zhao was really the architect of the reforms we credit Deng for. Obviously they both were critical. But any hint that it was more Zhao then Deng triggers protest in Beijing. The current generation of leaders really does owe its jobs to Deng's master plan for succession so anything that pulls at his stature, at his legitimacy, really does concern the government. And we've already seen some statements from Beijing that concern that part.

CS: Like?

IA: The main comment I've seen so far was a lengthy editorial that didn't attack the book head on but it attacked the western media's reaction suggesting that the western media wants dramatic change in China; wants the party toppled; wants democracy overnight --that it's some hidden agenda. So instead of going after the memoirs directly they are imagining sort of a foreign plot and that's the argument so far rather than go after the book itself.

CS: What is the threat of giving Zhao more credit; especially at this late juncture?

IA: The main argument is the political and economic system in China -the deal is we will let you get rich but we will not let you have a role in politics and we will not let you question the state. During Tiananmen, Zhao was arguing for a softer response and for political reform because that is the way to develop an economy and to deal with problems like corruption. The government ended up deciding economic liberalization: yes; political liberalization: no. And that is the Deng model. Deng set that agenda and he picked the current generation of leaders so if you question him you are questioning the system that exists in China now.

CS: What was your initial reaction when first found out these journals even existed?

AI: I was shocked-- it was incredible. I assumed China had succeeded in [erasing] him from anyone's consciousness-- he had been kept in his home for most of those final 16 years, unable to meet others, unable to publish. And it seemed sad that this brilliant innovative pragmatic thinker had been suddenly silenced and even Chinese people do not realize his contribution since he had been disappeared for so long. So when I heard snippets from the tape he recorded and realized this was the real deal I was amazed. I was thrilled that from the grave he would have the last word. It's exciting for China to have this voice re-injected in the dialogue about China and about its future.

CS: What would Zhao say if could see this book out now?

AI: He would be thrilled! A lot of what's incredible is the story of how it came to be that Zhao-under house arrest- was secretly recording all this material of 30 plus hours. He was using no high tech equipment- just taping over cassettes he had in the house--mostly children's music and opera. He never gave explicit instructions on what he wanted to happen with these tapes but the intent was clearly to create a public document. His family who has confirmed this is real also feel this is what needed to happen and they are happy as well. I feel fortunate to have been brought into this.

If I do nothing else in my life this is probably the best thing I've ever done.

Click here to hear Adi Ignatius reading a passage from Prisoner of the State about the lead up to Zhao's realization on June 4th, 1989, that despite his efforts, "a tragedy to shock the world" was happening after all.

Listen to the interview, originally aired on The Tibet Connection.