May 19, 1989 (a Friday)

On this date, Communist China’s General Secretary Zhao Ziyang made his last public appearance, when he visited student demonstrators in front of the Forbidden City and urged them to leave Tiananmen Square, warning that police would use force if they did not. The protests had begun several weeks earlier over the government’s refusal to allow public mourning upon the death on April 15th of pro-democracy official, Hu Yaobang.

At 4:50 am, in the darkness, Zhao Ziyang showed up on the edge of Tiananmen Square unexpectedly. He had come without permission from either the Poliburo or Deng Xiaoping. To his annoyance he realized that he had been followed by his hardliner rival Li Peng, whose appearance in the Square seemed ridiculous as Li was so thoroughly despised by the students. With Li behind him like a shadow, Zhao walked toward the fleet of city buses in which the hunger strikers were living. The exhausted and downbeat national leader was accompanied by his aide, Wen Jiabao, and other staff and guards. The entourage caused quite a stir. Zhao boarded one of the buses housing hunger strikers, shook hands, and gave an unprepared speech to a few cameras. He rumbled through, begging students to stop the hunger strike, but offered nothing other than the famous farewell-ish line, “I am old, I really don’t care any more…”


Zhao made this nocturnal visit after the Communist Chinese Politburo had decided to declare martial law and send in combat troops against Zhao’s wishes. Martial law was formally announced on the evening of May 19 in the Great Hall of the People, where Li Peng addressed thousands of government cadres. At midnight May 19, a few hours after students ended their hunger strike, the loudspeaker on Tiananmen Square announced the government’s martial law: Military troops were to enter the city and clear the Square. The martial law was made official throughout the nation in the morning of May 20.

That dazed-looking aide behind Zhao Ziyang is Wen Jiabao, more recently China’s prime minister.

Mr Zhao was a powerful figure within Communist China’s opaque apparatus of power, but his decision to back the young protesters in Tiananmen Square cost him his career, and earned him 16 years under arrest in his Beijing home. His removal from power was “effectively a coup,” according to American diplomatic officer Raymond Burghardt, who was chief political officer in Beijing at the time. Ironically, Zhao’s aide, Wen Jiabao, escaped the taint of his allegiance to his superior and is today the Prime Minister of Communist China.

Remarkably, the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang exploded into the open, four years after his death, on May 14, 2009. Dictated during his years of house arrest and smuggled out on cassettes disguised as children’s music or Peking opera, they were published as a book entitled, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang. Thus, Zhao posthumously became the first senior member of the Chinese Communist Party to openly criticize the government and the actions of his former colleagues with the publication of his memoirs.

The current Communist Chinese leadership says the crackdown was a “disturbance” by “hooligans” and says crushing the revolt was essential to ensure a stable foundation for the country’s economic growth. Mr. Zhao takes the opposite view.

Excerpts from Prisoner of the State (2009)
By Zhao Ziyang

On the 17 May meeting:

I walked out as soon as the meeting adjourned. At that moment, I was extremely upset. I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.

On the Tiananmen crackdown:

On the night of June 3rd, 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… First, it was determined then that the student movement was a planned conspiracy of anti-Party, anti-socialist elements with leadership. So now we must ask, who were these leaders? What was the plan? What was the conspiracy? What evidence exists to support this? Second, it was said that this event was aimed at overthrowing the People’s Republic and the Communist Party. Where is the evidence? I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system. Third, can it be proven that the June Fourth movement was “counterrevolutionary turmoil,” as it was designated? The students were orderly. Many reports indicate that on the occasions when the People’s Liberation Army came under attack, in many incidents it was the students who had come to its defense. Large numbers of city residents blocked the PLA from entering the city. Why? Were they intent on overthrowing the republic?

On democracy:

It would be wrong if our Party never makes the transition from a state that was suitable in a time of war to a state more suitable to a democracy society… The ruling Party must achieve two breakthroughs. One is to allow other political parties and a free press to exist. The second… is, the Party needs to adopt democratic procedures and use democratic means to reform itself… Different opinions must be allowed to exist, and different factions should be made legitimate.

The last word:

Whether the Communist Party persists should be determined by the consequences of society’s political openness and the competition between the Communist Party and other political powers (…) The trend is irrefutable, that the fittest will survive.

According to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, which is headquartered in Hong Kong, Mr. Zhao had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 1999.

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