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Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang
by Zhao Ziyang , Roderick MacFarquhar, Renee Chiang, Bao Pu, Adi Ignatius
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Reviewed by: John Walsh

After a lengthy career in service of the Chinese state, premier Zhao Ziyang was deposed and held under house arrest for sixteen years until his death. His crimes, if crimes they were, included support for economic liberalization, dissent from the Tiananmen Square massacre, and an incident in which he was considered to have demeaned ultimate (but in the shadows) leader Deng Xiaoping while in the international limelight. As is the Chinese way of doing things, Zhao Ziyang was kept under pretty tight wraps thereafter and never had the chance to provide his own view of things, which is what makes this account so exciting. The story goes that Zhao was able to obtain some cassette tapes that his grandchildren had been using for some kind of children's entertainment and was able secretly to over tape them with his own thoughts. These were found and smuggled out of the place of confinement and now transcribed and made public (publication date was 2009 in the UK).

Most attention has been placed on the human element of Zhao Ziyang's story and, even more so, his role in the Tiananmen Square incidents. In this case, he explains that he was opposed to the hard line taken by some in the committees that decided policies of this sort but was unable to prevent those policies being implemented nevertheless. Policy making in the upper reaches of the Chinese Communist Party is rather opaque and much takes place through the publication of different editorials or opinion pieces in influential newspapers, magazines and journals that are not very directly under the public eye. Those involved have intense ideological struggles relating to specific issues that are very heartfelt. This is particularly true of the issue of economic conditions (which is where my interests mostly lie) and the struggle around the Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Zhao Ziyang was squarely on the side of the economic liberalization represented by building SEZs and, in this respect, supported the lead of Deng Xiaoping whose Open Door policy revealed in 1978 and enacted thereafter has resulted in the enormous economic changes that have taken place subsequently. However, there were opponents: there are many people in the Chinese Communist Party who very strongly value the revolution that took place and the advantages brought for the ordinary Chinese people in the years since. They, some at least, were opposed to the SEZs on the basis that they represented the recreation of foreign concession areas, with all the evils of extra-territoriality that had been brought in by the Opium Wars period. Of course, in many ways, that tendency was correct, even if it now seems impossible to imagine that backward steps towards a closed economy could now ever take place. The SEZs have become home to millions of migrant workers, often labouring in difficult and even exploitative conditions whose wages scarcely match the enormous amounts of profit removed from the country by foreign capitalists who have invested in factories. The example of Fox-Conn and the assembly of various Apple consumer goods is one of the more well-known examples of this but there are large numbers of others.

The debates, which generally took place behind closed doors and according to indirect methods, are conducted in the discourse of ideology. For example, Zhao Ziyang was opposed by (among others) Chen Yun, whose opposition was expressed in terms of Leninist thought: "I felt that Chen Yun's thoughts were stuck in the theoretical expansions of 'finance-capital' found in Lenin's On Imperialism. After reforms had been launched, he read Lenin's On Imperialism again. He once told me that Lenin's characterization remained valid, and that we were still in the era of imperialism (pp.102-3)." Whether or not Lenin's analysis of the role of foreign capital investment was of considerable importance in Communist societies (and still is) and the genuine nature of the debate must be appreciated for there to be genuine understanding of political conditions in China. The current debate over the Guangdong versus Chongqing models of economic development and the role of Bo Xilai and his wife in that issue should be seen in this light. Any description of these debates as simply attempts by one faction to achieve particular policy positions for the sake of greed or desire for power should be rejected, therefore, as wholly inadequate. That includes, of course, pretty much all newspaper and popular media coverage.

The translation and editing work has been done by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius and a foreword is provided by Roderick MacFarquhar. This has all been done reasonably well - there are some Americanisms which jar when supposedly spoken by a Chinese man educated in the middle of the twentieth century but most readers will presumably not object to this. The book offers a great deal of interest for China watchers and for anyone interested in the ways that power operates at the top level.


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