Review: “Prisoner of the State”

This is a review of the book Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, written by Zhao Ziyang and translated/edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. It is published by Simon and Schuster and is available on Amazon in hardback for $16.56 USD. A Chinese version is also available in Hong Kong.

TIME wrote of Prisoner of the State: “Zhao might be more dangerous in death than he is in life.” It is, in fact, the power quotation, lying neatly atop the inside fold of the front cover, prefacing the summary — and indeed the book itself — with a promise of power. Whether this is the work of savvy advertisers or naive dreamers is unclear, but after reading Prisoner of the State one thing seems clear: Zhao isn’t any more of a threat to the Party now than he was before his death in 2005.

Prisoner of the State is not a revolution, nor will it cause one. Once you get that expectation out of your head, though, it’s a fascinating look into the inner workings of the CCP. This is not just Zhao’s diary of the Tiananmen crisis; in fact, Zhao’s account of that incident is a scant forty-five pages, after which he delves into other matters including his house arrest and his history within the Party fighting to advance economic reforms. He also offers his thoughts on how China should change, but there’s little of interest to see there. Zhao dictated the contents of Prisoner of the State onto audio tapes in the early 1990s; his analysis of what future-China needs isn’t particularly deep and parts of it are already outdated.

What it comes down to, then, is whether or not you’re interested in the back-room dealings that seem to have governed nearly every aspect of the CCP decision-making process. There’s backstabbing and intrigue aplenty, most interestingly during 1989, when every word of Zhao’s speeches was carefully scrutinized by opponents eager to see him fall. There’s the not-so-surprising revelation that Deng Xiaoping’s word was more or less law; once Deng’s opinion turned against Zhao, Zhao implies, there was nothing for him to do. By the time he appeared in the Square and made his famous speech (pictured above), his career was already dead.

Most of the book is focused on the economic development of the 1980s, and the various forces within the Party that were working for (or against that). Factions under the banners of Party elders, who had few official titles but massive influence, clash repeatedly, though Zhao is mostly shielded from the fray by Deng and Hu Yaobang until 1989. Though technically he was one of the most important people in China, one sometimes gets the impression that Zhao is a bit like Calvin and Hobbes barreling down tree-lined slopes in their red wagon: he isn’t so much driving as throwing his weight around trying to prevent narrow misses and put off the inevitable moment when the thing plows into a tree and he’s thrown clear. That’s right, China is a wagon in this metaphor!

Anyway, for me the most telling portion of the book was the chapter on Zhao’s house arrest, when the topic turns abruptly from the life-and-death political games of the leaders of one of the world’s largest countries to Zhao’s struggle to get his captors to let him play golf. Zhao loved golf, and repeatedly threatened to walk out his door and “take the bus” to the course, a threat which he reports often got them to send over a car and let him play a few rounds. When he’s not playing golf, or trying to play golf, he’s working on the minutia of his case, pointing out Party rule infractions that made his dismissal illegal. Of course, no one is listening — generally, no one even responds.

And that, I think, will likely be the effect of Prisoner of the State. It’s a fascinating resource for scholars, but it’s about as “dangerous” as Zhao’s letters to his old colleagues in the Party: no one [in China] is listening, and even if they were, the time has passed. Zhao, Deng, Hu Yaobang, Chen Yun, and most of the other major players in Zhao’s memoir are dead. Those that are still alive (most notably Wen Jiabao, China’s current Premier and Zhao’s chief assistant in 1989) are surprisingly absent from the text, perhaps by design.

Another June 4th has passed, and it seems unlikely that Prisoner of the State will be the thing that finally gets the government to admit its mistake. Still, the book offers a deeper understanding of that night to those seeking it, and perhaps more valuable, a deeper understanding of the progresses and setbacks that led up to it. Zhao may not be dangerous in death, but that doesn’t mean he’s boring.

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0 thoughts on “Review: “Prisoner of the State””

  1. C.Custer,

    I didnt read the book. CCP mocked Zhao trying to take credit away from Deng. I also heard from PBS that the publishers of books tried to give Zhao the credit over Deng. Is it true ?

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  2. Zhao gives tons of credit to Deng, basically credit for everything because he says the whole time he was in power it was still Deng making the final decisions. He also sort of lets Deng off the hook for 6/4 in that he repeatedly implies Deng was ‘poisoned’ by others and turned against Zhao while Zhao was in North Korea, so he sort of blames those others for the 6/4 result rather than Deng. In the English language edition of the book, the foreward does give Zhao a bit too much credit, yes, but Zhao obviously had nothing to do with that.

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