The recent death of Zhao Ziyang, the ousted General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for his support of the student demonstrators in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, has sparked new interest in this reformist leader once seen as heir apparent to Deng Xiaoping, the de facto ruler of the People’s Republic of China from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.
Zhao was last seen in public in Tiananmen Square on May 19, 1989, when he walked among the student demonstrators and told them: "Sorry kids, I have come too late." From then on, he spent the last fifteen years of his life under house arrest until his death on January 17, 2005. Zhao had become another casualty of CCP power struggles. Yet, his fate could have been a lot worse had a scheme, masterminded by Deng Xiaoping, then Premier Li Peng, and other CCP hard-liners played out.
During a recent interview with New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV), Dr. Cheng Xiaonong, Chief Editor of Modern China Studies, with a Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton, revealed that Party elders had sought ways to legitimize the Tiananmen Square Massacre in order to escape accountability for opening fire on innocent students and for deploying the military to Tiananmen Square without an official order of martial law, an act that amounted to a military coup. By framing Zhao as a CIA agent, they could argue that the crackdown was a necessary step to fend off a foreign infiltration attempt.
Before leaving China in 1989, Dr. Cheng worked in the Research section of the General Office under the China People’s Congress. Later he worked as a director of the General Research Office and an associate fellow at the Chinese Research Institute for Economic System Reform, which allegedly was the outfit Zhao used to contact the CIA.
According to Dr. Cheng, Deng held conclaves with hard-line Party elders prior to June 4, 1989, and secretly decided to deploy 500,000 soldiers to surround Beijing. They were willing to wage a bloody crackdown to secure the Party’s power. However, they kept this decision a secret from the Politburo and the Standing Committee.
Deng’s plan was to call for a Politburo Standing Committee meeting to rubber-stamp the order of martial law in Beijing in the evening of May 16, the day the soldiers were scheduled to enter Beijing. However, Deng was surprised when Zhao disagreed with his plan. Concerned that Zhao might block his move at the Politburo Standing Committee meeting, Deng postponed the meeting to May 17.
Yang Shangkun, then President of China, played a key role in ordering the military crackdown. On May 19, 1989, after the troops had entered Beijing, Yang told the army top brass that Deng had ordered the deployment. In the absence of a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on May 16, the army entered Beijing without an official order of martial law, a situation Yang described as "awkward."
Without the Politburo Standing Committee’s approval or even notification of the deployment, for the army to enter Beijing was illegal. Nonetheless, Deng had arbitrarily deployed half a million troops into Beijing without informing the Politburo and the Standing Committee. Under the CCP doctrine of "the Party dictates to the Army," this constituted a gross violation of the Constitution. In essence, it constituted a military coup, Dr. Cheng explained. Yang’s confession of a "very awkward situation" was in fact his acknowledgement of a violation of the Constitution.
On May 19, Deng managed to pass the martial law by forcing Zhao Ziyang to resign. After the Tiananmen Massacre, the CCP’s reputation hit rock bottom. Eager to find a scapegoat, the Party came up with a farfetched scheme that made any 007 movies pale by comparison.
As reported by NTDTV, Dr. Cheng said that in early July 1989, Wang Fang, then Public Security Minister, delivered a speech to senior CCP officials in which he accused Zhao Ziyang of being a CIA agent.
This was the Party’s "evidence": Zhao was trying to contact the George Soros Fund for the Reform and Opening of China through the Chinese Research Institute for Economic System Reform. The middleman was Bao Tong, then Director of the Central Research Institute for Political Reform and a senior adviser to Zhao. The Institute had collaborated with The Soros Fund on several projects before, including field trips to Hungary and Japan that were sponsored by the Fund. Wang alleged that the Soros Fund had CIA connections, so by default, Zhao was a CIA agent.
"The CCP did not have any evidence because the whole thing was fabricated out of thin air. But they didn’t care because framing was a routine practice for the CCP. They arrested more than a dozen employees at the Institute and held them at the Qingcheng Prison (a specialized place for imprisoning political opponents) for interrogation in an attempt to find damaging information against Zhao so they could fabricate evidence to frame him," Cheng told NTDTV.
Wang’s secret speech leaked out and found its way to the West. A Washington Post reporter got wind of the story and reported it in mid-July 1989.
Soros was shocked and furious. However, it did not take long for the currency wunderkind to master the CCP’s logic. In his letter to Deng Xiaoping, Soros argued that his Fund was established in China and was in reality controlled by China’s National Security Ministry because Ling Yun, retired deputy minister of National Security, was on the board of the Fund. Therefore, if the Fund had CIA connections, then China’s National Security Ministry was also linked to the CIA. Soros threatened to go public with the facts.
When Soros’s letter reached Deng Xiaoping, he and other CCP leaders realized that the story was too absurd and would cause more humiliation to the CCP if they allowed the farce to continue. They silently ditched the plot, and Zhao was spared from an undeserved ill turn.
A Vicious Circle
The ill-planned plot to label Zhao as a CIA agent was not Deng’s first assault on Zhao. Although Deng was the de facto ruler of China, his only official title in 1989 was Chairman of the Communist Party Central Military Commission. When Gorbachev visited Beijing in May 1989, he first met with Deng Xiaoping. When Deng told Gorbachev that their meeting was the equivalent of a summit meeting between the top leaders of the two nations, Gorbachev was clearly puzzled. Later that evening, Deng’s daughter called Zhao and asked him to explain to Gorbachev in their meeting the next day that Deng was the "Paramount Leader" and had final say among the Chinese leaders. She was asking Zhao to support Deng’s claim to Gorbachev, and Zhao obliged. Despite Zhao’s compliance, Deng’s followers and children later accused Zhao of pushing the responsibility of the June 4 Massacre to Deng by claiming Deng was the behind-the-scenes ruler.
What happened to Zhao is not unusual in CCP history. In the late 1950s, Deng Xiaoping, an old comrade and supporter of Mao Zedong, and then President Liu Shaoqi gained influence within the CCP amid growing disenchantment with Mao’s Great Leap Forward. They embarked on economic reforms that bolstered their prestige among the Party apparatus and the public. Mao grew apprehensive. Fearing that he would be reduced to a mere figurehead, he launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to destroy his enemies. Deng fell out of favor and had to retire from his offices, but returned in 1974. A second downfall in 1976 did not prevent him from a second return soon after Mao’s death the same year.
Liu Shaoqi was not as lucky. Labeled as a "traitor," "scab," and "the biggest capitalist roader in the Party" during the Cultural Revolution, Liu was removed from all his positions and expelled from the Party. He was confined under terrible conditions in an isolated cell in Kaifeng, where he died from "medical neglect" (untreated diabetes and pneumonia) in 1969.
Rising up from the CCP’s internal purges time and again, Deng didn’t seem to repent for his CCP-style cruelty. Instead, he continued the CCP’s tradition of maintaining an iron grip by any means, including killing.
Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, known for forming the infamous Gang of Four, was arrested in 1976, after Mao’s death and when the Cultural Revolution had ended. She was sentenced to death followed by a two-year reprieve in 1981. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. She committed suicide in prison.
In the case of Zhao Ziyang, had it not been for the Washington Post article and for Soros’s intervention, he could have been tried, sentenced, or even executed for treason.
When it comes to CCP power struggles, anything can happen.
Helen Chou is a freelance writer based in New York.