Twenty-one years ago Monday, a pivotal editorial published by the Politburo of the Communist Party of China in the People’s Daily denounced student demonstrations in Beijing, which had up to that point been peaceful and moderate, as “premeditated and organized turmoil with anti-Party and anti-socialist motives.” This declaration set off a series of fiery reactions that ultimately led to the chaos and violence of May 35th, 1989.
Zhao Ziyang spent his last sixteen years under house arrest. A former General Secretary of the Communist Party, at the very pinnacle of power, Zhao was unceremoniously banished to seclusion after the Tiananmen Square massacre for his opposition to conservative forces within China’s elite political establishment. Though often forgotten, as a non-person in China, Zhao is today remembered tragically for his failure to achieve a moderate or peaceful compromise between student protesters and a paranoid politburo in Beijing.
In his exile, Zhao had plenty of time to reflect on the events that unfolded in the spring of 1989. Unbeknown to his captors, and even to his family, Zhao produced hours of audio memoirs in secrecy by recording over old, poor-quality tapes of kids’ music and Peking Opera. He created a basic filing system with faint pencil markings, using no titles or legible notes. Over the years, Zhao quietly passed on the recordings to several trusted friends, careful to only disseminate portions at a time to hedge against the danger of confiscation. It turns out these recordings were probably just the copies. After his death, the presumed original tapes were found in plain sight, casually littered among his grandchildrens’ toys in the den.
The recordings have since been transcribed and translated, and offer a rare piece of insight into one of the most obfuscated and symbolic moments of modern history. This is the story of a noble yet pained statesman, proud of his position but aggrieved by his failure to prevent bloodshed. As Zhao recalls when tensions escalated past the point of no return:
“I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students… I refused to accept the assignment to chair the meeting of cadres to announce martial law [in Beijing]. I said, “It seems my mission in history has already ended.”