Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

In the Spirit of Zhao Ziyang

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Friends keep telling me to stay out of politics.  They’re depressing.  Focus on something else, they say.  Don’t get too worked up.  You’re young.  Don’t worry about it.

I try to find other interests.  Hell, I spend countless hours frolicking in the revelry of being a New England fan these days.  Sometimes I find myself just gazing affectionately at’s homepage, like a love-struck teen entranced by a yearbook photo.   It wastes time, the meaningless drivel of sports.  But they aren’t enough.  A Superbowl party only lasts until the hangover kicks in.

It’s not so much a hangover I suffer from, it’s the hang-ups.  China is the 21st’s century “riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma.”  At least it feels like it.  It seems like no one can really get a grasp on it, the sways of progress, the aims, the inner thoughts of those nine minds on the secretive inner committee of the politburo.  China is China.  When you live here, you know.  I constantly walk the street witnessing actions that make me stop and wonder, “What in the world could that person be thinking?”  But this isn’t the world.  This is China.  It’s different.  It’s culture, they tell you.  It’s bullshit, I say.

Bao Tong, one of the most hated/admired dissenters of the CCP recently spoke out about the events of the 17th Meeting of the CCP.  Needless to say, he voiced his complaints.  This man has nothing left to fear.  Death will come not as a surprise, but as a late dinner-guest.  He served his years in prison, his years under house arrest, his years of belittlement and character defamation.  He has endured the CCP erasing his name from the books.  He knows it well, like his friend and former colleague Zhao Ziyang.

Zhao Ziyang was an established and well-respected politician.  His upbringing as a relatively poor country citizen and his wartime alliance to the Communist party earned him respect and the type of friends necessary to rise within the CCP.  Zhao was the Chinese Premier from 1980-1987 and later elected the prestigious, nearly omnipotent post of General Secretary of the CCP from 1987-1989.  He played a prominent role in the economic reforms “opening up” China, and is most fondly remembered for his devotion to the improvement of economic production in the countryside of Sichuan province.  His former speechwriter would later say Zhao represented an unheard of paradox, “a leader staunchly committed to dismantling the very system that supported his power.”

If that had been the end of the story, one would see his name on posters and posthumous awards.  He would be buried under a heap of the respectful titles Chinese laud upon former leader, such as most honorable comrade, etc.  But that isn’t his legacy.  In fact, if it were up to the CCP, he would have to legacy at all.  It is trying to ensure that, as we speak.  The more I tried to find articles about Zhao, the less my internet worked.  It began with sites being blocked.  Then all searches were futile.  Then my entire browser froze.  I am typing this on Microsoft word, hoping to cut and paste it in once my proxy server connects.

Zhao is most famous for his defection– or “serious mistakes” as China claims– from the CCP.  It was the morning of May 19, 1989.   After three proposed resolutions for dealing with the more than one million protestors in Tiananmen Square failed to gain a majority consensus among the political elite, the struggle for power between hardliners and moderates had never been more clear or more broad.  Marital law was imminent.  And Zhao, when he could have turned against his own people, when he could have protected his clutch on power, let his true allegiance be known.

He left the confines of the government offices.  He grabbed a bullhorn and rushed to the Square to warn the students and protestors to disperse.  His first words:  “I am sorry, I have come too late.”  He pleaded, he urged, he rationalized, empathized; he cried.  As John Gittings writes, “Honesty was only possible when it was irrelevant.”

Zhao was then purged.  He was lucky, sentenced to “silent death,” in other words lifelong house arrest.  He was spared dying tortured and untreated on a prison cell floor like Liu Shaoqi.  He is no longer considered one of the “revolutionaries” of Chinese history, a title bestowed on any notable political elite.  And this is not to say he deserves to be honored as a bellowing voice for democracy.  He was a rational man, in many ways a centrist.  Yet, too often “at times of crisis, the centre cannot hold.”  The Tiananmen students wrongly believed the internal division within the CCP could work to their benefit, when “in reality [it] had strengthened the powers of the diehards.”  The students unwittingly brought on a backlash to conservative policies rendered out of fear and an inveterate career protection mechanism intrinsic to Chinese politics.  As Gittings wrote, “The student democracy movement ‘sharpened the contradictions’ until Zhao was impaled on them.”

Zhao’s story goes beyond my personal apprehensions with Chinese government, development, and the suppression of free speech and citizen’s rights.  It speaks to the current situation in the States, the collapse of the center as government party survival hinges on appeasing the radical elements of its platform.  Where are our leaders who march with the citizens?  Where are our leaders who say, “Fuck it! I might not get elected next term, but I believe in this!”  When will it be “too late”?


Written by Miles

October 26, 2007 at 5:39 pm

One Response

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  1. “I constantly walk the street witnessing actions that make me stop and wonder, ‘What in the world could that person be thinking?'”

    You must be referring to this:


    October 29, 2007 at 6:42 pm

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