Many events have been held in the world’s largest public square, but it is the student protests of June 1989, when Zhao Ziyang supported and then tried to calm those camped in the Square, that continue to resonant. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Zhao Ziyang was a leading economic reformer of the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s. He rapidly rose through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), becoming premier and party general secretary in the 1980s. His opposition to the crackdown on the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing resulted in his dismissal from office.

Zhao Ziyang was born as Zhao Xiusheng in Huaxian County, Henan Province in 1919. His father was a local landlord. He attended primary school in his native town and middle schools in Kaifeng and Wuhan. He joined the Communist Youth League in 1932 and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1938. By 1940 he was the party secretary of the Third Special District in the Hebei-Shandong Border Region. After the end of World War II in Asia, he occupied himself with rural reform work in the Hebei-Shandong-Henan Border Region. He also served as the party secretary of Luoyang District in Henan from 1948 to 1949.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Zhao served in numerous positions in Guangdong Province. He was elected a member of the People’s Council of Guangdong in 1955, was appointed secretary of the Guangdong Province Communist Party in 1957, and rose to the position of provincial first party secretary in 1965. He played an instrumental role in consolidating CCP control and implementing land reform policies.

During the Cultural Revolution, Zhao was accused of being a follower of unpopular figures such as Tao Zhu and Liu Shaoqi. During the late 1960s, he was publicly denounced, stripped of office, and paraded through the streets of Guangzhou (Canton) in a dunce cap. In 1971, he was sent to what amounted to internal exile as a party secretary in Inner Mongolia.

In the dying days of the Cultural Revolution, Zhao was rehabilitated by Zhou Enlai (1899–1976) and assigned as provincial first party secretary in Sichuan Province in 1976. He proceeded to address the province’s economic stagnation that resulted from the Cultural Revolution. He allowed up to 15 percent of land in communes to be worked privately. He also permitted both farmers and workers to engage in a wide range of small-scale private economic activities. The results were impressive: grain production grew by 24 percent and industrial production rose by 80 percent in the period from 1976 to 1979.

Due to his success in Sichuan, Zhao was rapidly promoted by China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997). Zhao was appointed alternate member of the Politburo in 1977, a full member of the Politburo in 1979, a member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee in 1980, and vice-premier in the same year. Six months later, he replaced Hua Guofeng as premier. He was appointed to the post of CCP general secretary in January of 1987.

In positions of nationwide power and influence, Zhao continued to advocate market-style reforms and a more open policy toward the outside world, particularly the West. He also implemented measures to streamline the bloated bureaucracy and called for the gradual separation of the CCP from both government administration and industrial management. While many of his reforms were praised, his economic liberalization program was blamed for the rising inflation of the late 1980s.

Zhao’s most important moment and his political downfall came with the student protests in Tiananmen Square in May and June of 1989. Many of the student demonstrators felt that Zhao would be more sympathetic to their demands for reform than many of Zhao’s more hard-line colleagues. This was borne out in secret meetings of China’s top leaders, where Zhao consistently opposed the use of force against the demonstrators. When Deng Xiaoping declared that “I have the army behind me” in a tumultuous 17 May 1989 Politburo meeting, Zhao reportedly retorted, “But I have the people behind me. You have nothing.” But as the students became increasingly strident in their criticism of the government, emboldened by worldwide media coverage and joined by over one million residents in Beijing, averting the ultimate repression of the demonstrations proved impossible for the state. Zhao’s personal visit to Tiananmen Square to urge students to end their hunger strike had no effect; “I came too late; I came too late,” he lamented to student leaders. After the declaration of martial law and the bloody clearing of Tiananmen Square by military troops, Zhao was removed from office and replaced by Jiang Zemin. He was also placed under house arrest. He remained a member of the CCP but was almost completely absent from public life until his death.

Zhao died in January 2005 at the age of eighty-five. The PRC government acknowledged Zhao’s death but kept memorials to a bare minimum, perhaps in fear that widespread mourning of Zhao’s passing might lead to anti-government demonstrations as had previously happened in the cases of Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang. Zhao was survived by his second wife, Liang Boqi, five children, and several grandchildren.

Further Reading

Cheng Chu-yuan. (1990). Behind the Tiananmen massacre. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Liang Zhang, Nathan, A., & Link, P. (Eds.). (2001). The Tiananmen papers. New York: Public Affairs.

Shambaugh, D. (1984). The making of premier Zhao Ziyang’s provincial career. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Vogel, E. (1969). Canton under Communism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Larsen, Kirk W.. (2009). ZHAO Ziyang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2625–2626. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

ZHAO Ziyang (Zhào Z?yáng ???)|Zhào Z?yáng ??? (ZHAO Ziyang)

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