On January 17, former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Zhao Ziyang passed away at the age of 85 in a Beijing Hospital, an event mourned by many concerned with China’s welfare across the world. Zhao’s life is a microcosm of contemporary China, one of tumultuous change and reversals of course. We saw things come full circle with Zhao’s life — Party ideology undermining a person’s human nature, and human nature reawakened.
Zhao Ziyang’s original name was Zhao Xiuye. He was born on October 17, 1919 in Hua County, Henan Province. He joined the Chinese Communist Youth League in March 1932 and became a member of the CCP in February 1938. In his career with the CCP, Zhao climbed the ladder quickly and moved all the way to the top, starting from a County Party Secretary in his twenties, to Military District Political Commissioner, Provincial Party Secretary, and finally General Secretary of the CCP. Except for a period during the Cultural Revolution when he lost his position, Zhao’s career was always on the fast track.
However, Zhao Ziyang paid a huge price for his devotion to the Party. He was born into a wealthy farmer’s family, and Zhao’s father was killed by the CCP in 1947 during the Land Reform movement. At the time, Zhao Ziyang was the Party Secretary of the prefecture where his home village was located, and he was responsible for implementing the CCP’s harsh Land Reform policy.
His total indoctrination by the CCP was illustrated by his own words: “The cadres from the landlord family must position themselves with the peasants. First and foremost, they should cut ties with their families in their minds. They should actively persuade their families to carry out the Land Reform policy. This is a serious test. This policy is not just for convincing themselves. If the cadres were opposed to the masses, our Party shall side with the masses, not the cadres. Otherwise, we cannot remove all the ‘bomb shelters’ [holdouts from Land Reform], and we will not be able to eliminate all in the landlord class. Anyone who opposes the mass movement will be expelled from the Party and even be sentenced to jail. If military cadres bring soldiers to the village to try to suppress the peasant movement, the peasants may open fire on the soldiers. The nature of the conflict is a class struggle.”
Zhao’s father named him Zhao Xiuye (meaning cultivating karma), a name with Buddhist connotations. Later he changed his name, either of his own accord or under pressure. The message was clear. He wanted to cut ties with the older generation and with Chinese tradition, and devote himself to the Communist revolution by giving up everything in his life—his name, his father’s life and property, and his previous ideals.
Zhao actively participated in the Land Reform movement that proclaimed, “See blood in every village; kill people as if harvesting.”He was also a well-known writer of CCP propaganda. The rapid advancement of his career, as well as his attitude towards his father and family, provide a telling picture of his loyalty to communism and to Party policy.
Zhao Ziyang was deceived and indoctrinated by the Party for most of his life. His story is representative of the lives of most Chinese people of his era. However, Zhao Ziyang began to see things differently as he became more intimately familiar with the Party. Perhaps his own plight during the Cultural Revolution led him to realize the destructive nature of the CCP and the devastation brought about by its policies. Remarkably, he was then able to work within the CCP system to effect change.
As the Party Secretary of Sichuan Province from the mid to late 1970s, Zhao Ziyang took a huge political risk by going against central government policy in the rural areas. He initiated economic reform by allowing Sichuan peasants to adopt a partial free economy. His reforms rapidly increased Sichuan’s agricultural output. People at that time had a saying, “If you want food, go see (Zhao) Ziyang.”
In the 1980s, Zhao rose to the position of Vice Premier, followed by other high-ranking positions. He championed simultaneous reform of the economy and the political system. His idea was very different from Deng Xiaoping’s theory of “reform to save the Party.”Zhao embraced the concept of “reform to save the country”and carried it out within the framework of the Party, and often in spite of it.
To the Chinese people, Zhao Ziyang’s most memorable legacy was his moral standing during the June 4th incident, when he refused to agree to the mass murder his own people. On May 19, 1989, at 4:45 a.m., Zhao Ziyang, then Communist Party Secretary, accompanied by Wen Jiabao, then Chief of Staff in the CCP’s Central Committee, went to Tiananmen Square to see the students who were holding a hunger strike. Holding a bullhorn with a trembling hand, an emotional Zhao Ziyang said, “Fellow students, we’ve come too late. We let you down. We are old and not that important. You are still young. The future belongs to you. You must take care of yourselves!”
At that moment, Zhao Ziyang’s conscience overcame the shackles of CCP ideology. During the subsequent 15 years under house arrest, Zhao Ziyang maintained the same position he had on June 4, 1989. He remained true to his ideas on political reform and to his firm stance on the bloodshed on Tiananmen Square. He remained true to his conscience and his dignity until the very end.
Mr. Zhao, in your 85 years of life, you had once turned against your family and fully dedicated yourself to the Communist Party, heart and soul. When you re-discovered your conscience and overcame CCP ideology with your moral character, you became who you really were— the upright son of China’s countryside who stood up for his people and what is right.
Mr. Zhao—Zhao Xiuye—may you rest in peace.