The New York Times reports today of a rare and remarable occurrence, the publicly released memoir of communist Chinese leader – secretly recorded, in this case, during his 16-year house-arrest prior to his death, by former party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, deposed in 1989 for being soft on the Tiananmen demonstrators before the ultimate crackdown and massacre. The twentieth anniversary arrives June 5. Zhao recounts how China’s then supreme, behind-the-scenes leader, Deng Xiaoping, turned against him. He also asserts his belief that the demonstrators ““were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system.”
That is how Zhao saw it. He may or may not have been right, but he was closer to events than nearly everyone else, and he can’t be accused – unlike those who opposed and deposed him – of perception distorted by the desire to maintain power. We do know that in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations, once events were set in motion toward reform, they developed an irresistible momentum, and the same might have been so in China. Still, Zhao tells us, “I told myself that no matter what, I would not be the general secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.” This, in many alternative forms, was the decision made by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Charles Freeman, on the other hand, who might have been the Chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council had not there been a swell of protests against him – by many then vilified for their opposition to him, and their motives – saw matters differently. A man who was touted by his supporters as a much needed opponent of orthodox analysis, his record reveals, in fact, an empathetic advisor to the wielders of power, a Cromwell to varied Henry Tudors, whether Saudi Kings or Chinese party bosses. Gorbachev and Ziyang – strong, clever men who climbed to the top of treacherously slippery poles – chose their people and human progress over power. Charles Freeman, who has cited approvingly General MacArthur’s attack on the U.S. “Bonus Army” in 1932, advocated the preservation of power – regardless of whose – and only lamented the lateness of the action.
We’ll never know how lucky we were. But we can imagine.