Zhao Ziyang

The Chinese politician Zhao Ziyang (Zhao Xiusheng; born 1919) was premier of the People's Republic of China from 1980 to 1989 and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party from 1987 to 1989. He championed a number of political and economic reforms but was ousted for his role in creating conditions which led to the student pro-democracy movement.

Born into a family of landlords in Huaxian County, Henan Province, in China, in 1919, Zhao Ziyang attended elementary school in his hometown and middle schools first in Kaifeng and later in Wuhan. He was married to Liang Bogi and had four sons and one daughter. Zhao joined the Communist Youth League in 1932 and became a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1938. During the War of Resistance Against Japan (World War II) and the civil war against the Kuomingtang (KMT), Zhao served as a local party leader at the country and prefectural levels in central China, primarily engaged in land reform.

After the CCP took over power from the KMT of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Zhao was transferred to South China where he served as a member of the standing committee of the South China subbureau in the Central-South China Bureau of the CCP Central Committee (1950), secretary-general of the same subbureau (1952), director of the Rural Work Department in the same subbureau (1953), and third secretary in the same subbureau (1954). In 1955 he was elected a member of the People's Council of Guangdong Province and appointed deputy party secretary of Guangdong Province. In April 1965 he became the first party secretary of Guangdong Province. Under his leadership, Guangdong was among the first provinces to return to guaranteed private plots, free rural markets, and contracting output to households after the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign of Mao Tse-Tung.

During the Cultural Revolution spearheaded by the Red Guards, Zhao was persecuted and exiled to a factory as a laborer because of his support for "revisionist" policies. In 1971 he reappeared in China's political arena and became the party secretary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. One year later he served concurrently as chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

In April 1972 Zhao returned to Guangdong where he was appointed vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Committee. In 1974 he was promoted to the first party secretary and chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Guangdong Province. In Guangdong, Zhao reportedly played a crucial role in the release of Li Yi Zhe, the pseudonym of three dissident Red Guards who wrote wall posters that repudiated the theoretical justification of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

In 1976 Zhao was transferred and reassigned as first party secretary and chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Szechwan Province, and first political commissar of Chengtu Military Region. In Szechwan, China's most populous province (more than 100 million people), Zhao championed the so called "household production responsibility system," which related peasants' performance with their remuneration and provided them with incentive for production, resulting in a big increase in grain supply.

His successful rural reform and other reform measures in Szechwan boosted his political career enormously, as he was co-opted by Deng Xiaoping into the reform camp. Zhao was elected an alternate member of the Politburo in the CCP 11th Congress in August 1977 and became a full member of the Politburo two years later. He was promoted to be vice premier in April 1980 and premier in September of the same year. After Hu Yaobang's ouster in the wake of student demonstrations in 1987, Zhao replaced Hu as CCP general secretary. As premier, Zhao traveled in numerous countries, including the United States in 1984. Two years later, like his predecessor, he was ousted for having sympathy for the students' prodemocracy movement, which reached a climax with the military assault on the students in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Zhao was widely considered a major architect of China's economic and political reforms as well as an outstanding administrator. In addition to the household production responsibility system, a highly successful reform measure which contributed largely to the economic growth in China's rural areas, Zhao initiated and implemented the following major reform programs: decentralization of power to local governments and to state enterprises; introduction of a market-oriented economy; and relaxation of the CCP's rigid control over the government, society, mass media, mass organizations, and people.

Although Zhao's political and economic reforms gave the Chinese people more freedom and democracy and significantly improved their living standard, these measures also brought about many problems. Among them were an unprecedented skyrocketing inflation, abuse of power in local governments and enterprises, "official racketeering," corruption, and bribery. These side effects of the reforms contributed to people's widespread dissatisfaction at the government, which in turn gave rise to the pro-democracy movement in the spring of 1989. Zhao was involved in an intra-CCP power struggle and chose to support the protest movement. "At this critical juncture involving the destiny of the party and state," Zhao was accused by Premier Li Peng, his major political enemy, of having "made the mistake of supporting the turmoil and splitting the party." Because of "his unshirkable responsibilities for the development of the turmoil" and of "the serious nature and consequences of his mistake," on June 24, 1989, the 13th CCP Central Committee, decided to "dismiss him as general secretary of the Central Committee, member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, and first vice chairman of the Military Commission of the CCP Committee, and decided to look further into his case."

After Tiananmen Square, Zhao was replaced by Jiang Zemin as head of the Chinese Communist Party. Bao Tong, Zhao's right-hand man, was sentenced to seven years in jail for inciting counter-revolutionary activities. Zhao was officially disgraced and placed in retirement and rehabilitation (house arrest). In 1997 Tong was released from prison and Zhao, while still being rehabilitated, was reported well and playing golf regularly while under guard.


Further Reading on Zhao Ziyang

Additional information on Zhao Ziyang can be found in David L. Shambaugh's The Making of a Premier: Zhao Ziyang's Provincial Career (1984). For information on the student movement in the context of today's China see Lee Feigon's China Rising: The Meaning of Tiananmen (1990), and By Yi and Mark V. Thompson, Crisis at Tiananmen: Reform and Reality in Modern China (1990). Accounts of Ziyang during his rehabilitation can be found in Asia Week and similar news sources.