Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Test for the Chinese Communist Party

Recently, the memoir of China's top leader during the 1989 Tiananmen protests was published. But this isn't just any book. 

Based on 30 hours of audio testimony by Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman from 1987-1989, the book details Zhao's opposition to the repression of protestors. He also expresses strong support for the democratic goals of the Tiananmen movement: "In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. It seems that this system is currently the best one available." Further, he says, "If we don't move toward this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy." (Full disclosure: I am waiting for the book to be shipped to me and have not read it. My evidence is based on reports of the publication.)

The English version of this book, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, is available in Hong Kong and will soon be sold in the US. The Chinese version will be released in China at the end of May. This is, of course, right before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square protests. Thus, it is particularly inconvenient for a CCP that is already sensitive to any mention of this issue in the media or among Chinese civil society.

This will be a test for China's leadership. At the very least, Zhao's memoir is going to foment discussion and reevaluation about the reasons and legitimacy of the Chinese government's use of the army to quell dissent in Beijing two decades ago. At the most, the memoir will raise questions about the need for more political freedom in China today. 

The CCP's response to this event can vary widely:

1) Suppression. At one extreme, the CCP could ban the sale of the book anywhere in China, tighten its internet surveillance on Tiananmen discussion, and ramp up its prosecution for mention of the subject. But since the book is coming directly from the former #1 man of the CCP, this option would seem particularly paranoid and contradictory. Such steps would also express a distrust in the Chinese people to handle Zhao's accounts. This could seriously risk marring the image -- and even the legitimacy -- of the CCP among its populace.

2) More of the same. The government could allow the book to be sold but continue its policy of prohibiting open conversation on the historical events. This seems the most likely option. Not only does it require the least amount of change in policy -- always an issue in a bureaucracy -- but it still hedges strongly against the Tiananmen issue becoming a larger social movement -- always a concern for the CCP in country frequently wrought by large protests in the past century. The CCP does not plan on significant political reform in the next five years -- the focus is economic and environmental. So this response to the book seems most in line with the Communist's plan. It wouldn't score any points with the international or domestic audiences, but it wouldn't lose any either. Least risk, least reward.   

3) Opportunism. The government could allow the sale of the memoir and then allow further civil society discussion on what Zhao's testimony means for the historical account of the Tiananmen incident. Further, the CCP could release a statement responding to the new information, thereby framing the issue in the public before other prominent voices could do so. This approach holds more risk but significantly more reward. On the one hand, allowing the public to begin discussing Tiananmen more openly could provide an opportunity for democratic forces within society to readily gain support for contemporary democratic demands, possibly escalating into another movement. On the other hand, if the CCP frames the issue first as being a primarily historic one, then it can gain in two ways: a) it could prevent escalation by implicitly setting limits to the discussion and b) the CCP can continue to associate itself with Zhao, who is highly respected among the Chinese people. Finally, this option would also score big points with the international community. (However, one could argue that China has more international influence today than it has since the 19th century doesn't need the boost in international leverage right now.) 

4) Pull out all the stops. Of course, the CCP could always use this as an opening to allow the sudden open conversation of democracy in current political reforms. Not only is this highly unlikely, but such a sudden transition and reversal of policy would be risky. This step could feasibly be taken in the next five years, but the first step ought to be sorting out the facts of history in a public conversation. 

As stated earlier, #2 is the most likely reaction as it falls in line with the Communist Party's current plan. I would be elated to be wrong and see #3 come out of the the government -- the people deserve some honesty on this historical matter and should be able to discuss their past openly. But the CCP has few interests in allowing Tiananmen to be discussed now. There really aren't any compelling political reasons for the CCP to act. They don't need a mandate to govern as long as they deliver a more prosperous and green economy. 

And let's all hope that we don't see #1. On the issue of Tiananmen, suppression of Zhao's book would, indeed, be a step back into history.   


  1. I think the book to be banned in China is the most likely. Actually, banning the book in China won't even be of any surprise to me. I guess that's also the anticipation of the publishers and that's why they chose to publish the book in English in HK and in the U.S. first. -yp

  2. I agree that CCP will allow the book. But definitely leave out some excerpts from the book.

    I listen to the tape. What he said is actually what most people think: Tiananmen Movement tries to democratize China. I don't think it adds in any new knowledge to people.

    What do you think?

  3. Although I haven't yet read the book, some important excerpts I've read provide some new interpretations of events. A great article on this:

    One of the most profound clarifications is the intra-party disputes and disagreement over the issue of using the military to suppress protesters. Specifically, Zhao says that Deng Xiaoping basically pushed through the action without a majority vote in the Politburo -- which is illegal under CCP procedure.

    Also, Zhao discusses the resistance to his desire to more rapidly open up the country economically and politically. Here are two quotes from that article:

    "Zhao admits that that he was initially an economic reformer, and politically conservative, with no interest in political reforms, and he says that the turning point came around 1985 when he realized 'a need for political reform from the perspective of economic reform.'"

    "[Zhao] also calls for freedom of association, assembly, demonstrations, petitions and strikes, and calls for limited press freedom."

    These sorts of statements by the once-party chief is a problem for the current CCP narrative that their was unity in the past (and currently) among top officials

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