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CHINA: Secret Memoir Highlights Political Dissent

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, May 15 2009 (IPS) - Painstaking efforts by Chinese leadership to maintain the cloak of official silence over the crackdown of a 1989 pro-democracy movement backfired this week when Hong Kong released explosive clandestine memoirs of an ousted reformist party leader.

With the twentieth anniversary of the brutal suppression of student-led Tiananmen demonstrations on Jun. 4 just around the corner, the publication of the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, the General Secretary of the Communist Party at the time – who was purged for his opposition to the bloodshed – draws more than just unwanted attention to a historical episode Beijing has been trying very hard to forget.

Zhao’s memoirs challenge the current political platform of the Chinese Communist Party, which advocates totalitarian control over an increasingly vibrant society, arguing social stability is the mantra of economic prosperity.

Even as they have embraced market-style economic reforms, Chinese Communist leaders have repeatedly rejected western-style democracy, maintaining it does not suit China and would lead to chaos and social upheaval.

But Zhao Ziyang – who remains an iconic figure for Chinese liberal intellectuals twenty years after his downfall and four years after his death – disputes Beijing’s economic formula. In memoirs recorded secretly while he was under house arrest, and smuggled out of the country, Zhao praises parliamentarian democracy and predicts China’s economic boom would be short-lived without it.

"If a country wishes to modernise, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentarian democracy as its political system," Zhao said. "Otherwise, this nation will not be able to have a market economy that is healthy and modern, nor can it become a modern society with a rule of law."

He predicts that such a society will be plagued by "commercialisation of power and rampant corruption" and would be "polarised between rich and poor."

"Zhao had a very clear vision of political reform, which we found relevant to everything that is happening now in China," says Yu Jie, a writer, and one of China’s most outspoken social critics. "Charter 08, the human rights manifesto for China that we released last year, is very much influenced by his views."

Zhao’s memoirs – which he recorded on old musical tapes while under house arrest before his death in 2005 – were distributed to three confidantes, smuggled out of China and transcribed by trusted friends. The book – ‘Prisoner of State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang,’ published in English by U.S. publisher Simon & Schuster, went on sale in Hong Kong Thursday.

Its effect in Hong Kong was instantaneous.

More than 20 lawmakers stormed out of the legislature after the city’s leader suggested ordinary people are no longer interested in what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and aligned himself with Beijing’s official account of the Tiananmen incident as a distant event justified by China’s current economic boom.

"I understand Hong Kong people’s feelings about Jun. 4, but the incident happened many years ago," Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said, according to the South China Morning Post.

"The country’s development in many areas has since achieved tremendous results and brought economic prosperity to Hong Kong. I believe Hong Kong people will make an objective assessment of the nation’s development."

Pro-democracy lawmakers accused Tsang of "burying his consciousness." He later apologised for speaking on behalf of Hong Kong’s people. The former British territory, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, continues to hold annual candle vigils for the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown.

China’s government, which has defended the crackdown, says the students were out to subvert the Communist party and to unleash chaos.

But Zhao Ziyang disagrees.

"I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system," he says in his memoirs. He argues that the party’s brutal suppression of the protests was what caused many of these democracy activists to part with their faith in Communism and "take a stand to oppose the party."

Recalling the night of Jun. 3 – the eve of the crackdown – Zhao said: "While sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all."

Zhao had advocated dialogue with the students and opposed the imposition of martial law. But in the days leading up to the crackdown he was sidelined by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, then premier Li Peng and other party conservatives and placed under house arrest where he remained until his death.

"I told myself that no matter what, I would not be the general secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on students," he says in his memoirs.

Zhao argues that by ousting him from power the party conservatives dispensed with the facade of constitutional government and reverted to the approach of Mao Zedong’s dictatorial rule.

Around 10 pm on Saturday Jun. 3, the People’s Liberation Army’s coordinated assault on Beijing took place in full view of the world press.

Tanks and troops rolled down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, smashing all resistance, spraying bullets on protesters and innocent bystanders, government buildings, hotels and diplomatic residences. The terror lasted all through the night. The military occupation of Beijing continued until September when martial law was lifted.

How many troops took part, how many died and exactly how many were imprisoned has never been fully revealed.

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