Zhao Ziyang – The Tiananmen Catalyst

Photo from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/16791/Zhao-Ziyang-in-1984

The ideological black sheep of the Chinese Communist Party during the 1980s, Zhao Ziyang was ultimately held in view by the party as a significant cause of the Tiananmen Square protests that led to the massacre of June 3rd and 4th 1989, resulting in the deaths of an unknown number of students, labourers and Beijing citizens.

Born on 17th October 1919, Zhao Xiuye’s wealthy landlord father was murdered in the process of land reforms undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. However, Zhao confirmed his support of the party’s cause in joining the Communist Youth League in 1932 and progressed to party membership just five years later. Following the death of Mao and the subsequent power struggle resulting in Deng Xiaoping’s takeover, new agricultural reforms to paper over the cracks began in 1979 in the province of Sichuan, where Zhao Ziyang was provincial party secretary. That year, Zhao was rewarded for his achievements in the successful implementation of the reforms, accepting a promotion to Politburo membership in September. Zhao was promoted to vice premier in April 1980 and replaced Hua Guofeng as premier of the State Council 6 months later. This dramatic succession through the ranks was to foreshadow the speed at which Zhao was to be dropped from the party less than a decade later.

The political hierarchy constructed around Premier Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was built through an intense shared opposition to Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution that claimed millions of Chinese lives in the 1950s. Deng surrounded himself with a faction of rehabilitated cadres who had felt the direct effects of the revolution, but they were a diverse and conflicting group who rarely saw eye to eye. Zhao Ziyang was particularly deserted, an economic pragmatist who found a strong sympathy for the student population, just as Mao had before him. Zhao became Deng Xiaoping’s protégé through his time in the party, standing in the liberal reformist corner of Deng’s ‘practice faction’ alongside Chen Yun, both of whom were concerned with the maintenance of central administrative control, however the two rarely found similarities beyond that. Zhao evolved into the active opposite of Chen in that he developed a drastically experimental and defiant approach to his political interests, as opposed to Chen’s docile personality. Zhao also definitively failed to appeal to Hu Yaobang, expressing a preference for the input methods of reform socialism that the party had been enacting since 1949. Despite his sympathy towards the student movements, Zhao found himself significantly intolerant of the media, journalists and writers who took certain liberties with the information they held, the contrast to Hu Yaobang’s acceptance.

The days that precluded the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4th 1989 were to hammer the nails into Zhao Ziyang’s political coffin. Zhao was known for speaking out against the widespread corruption and embezzlement that fraught the party’s mobilisation, and as such sympathised with the student factions during the Beijing Spring of 1989. The controversial Tiananmen Papers solidify the suspicion that Zhao Ziyang supported the student causes against the majority wishes of the party, explaining that backing the students would in turn advance the party’s reforms after a period of political stagnation.

Although Zhao and comrade Hu Yaobang had failed to agree on many political occasions, which was often a result of their competition to take over the party following Deng Xiaoping, Zhao’s eulogy at Hu’s funeral on 22nd April 1989 described his comrade as ‘a great Marxist’, words which were met with unrest among party officials. The ceremony attracted 100,000 onlookers, most of whom were students who began demonstrations immediately following the ceremony, demanding an audience with government officials on their qualms against the corruption and economic chaos caused by the party in recent years. The party responded with an agreement to end the mourning period for Hu Yaobang prematurely, a decision which was opposed only by Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li and a small handful of others. Zhao promptly left for an arranged visit to North Korea the following day, and in his absence the party stirred against his increasingly bold activities. Confirming their concerns, upon his return Zhao headed directly for an audience with Deng Xiaoping to convey his disagreement with the party’s responses to the students, with his particular objection directed towards the April 26th editorial published in the People’s Daily which denounced the student movements as ‘turmoil’ that the party felt compelled to suppress with the implementation of martial law, condemning the suppression of the movements as ‘unwise’. Deng, in the name of prioritising stability, allowed Zhao to attempt his softer approach should the students push further. On May 4th, Zhao publicly announced that he believed the students were simply demanding that the party should correct their malpractices, in the hope that an announcement of the party’s calm reception of the demands would in turn calm the movements, yet this further strengthened them in revealing the clear divisions in opinions amongst the party leaders, which was exactly the students’ purpose for protest in the first place. As time passed rapidly in the student unrest, the students demands changed too fast for the party to respond in time and to an acceptable standard, as such the cracks appeared to show at an alarming rate. Zhao’s desertion was most prominent in his proposals made at the May 16th meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, offering to retract the April 26th editorial and establish an investigatory organisation to look into party corruption, a proposal which was voted down four to one, even by Zhao’s oldest ally Hu Qili. It would soon be proved that the committee did not overwhelmingly dismiss Zhao’s proposals, but turned the concept of an audit on all private business companies into an audit on Zhao and the students instead.

It was on May 17th that Zhao personally acknowledged the patriotism with which the students moved and subsequently promised no reprisals if they called an end to the disruptions. Zhao was seen reaching out to hunger strikers, stating that ‘there is no fundamental conflict of interests’ between the party and the students, but his words fell on deaf ears and consequent confrontations with his mentor Deng led Zhao to offer his resignation, which was swiftly rejected as a public signal of a divide within the party that would provoke the volatile students further. Directly after the meeting, Zhao asked to be driven to Tiananmen Square, and through a megaphone he acted his last as general secretary, informing the congregated hunger strikers: ‘we’ve come too late’, Li Peng’s martial law had been given the go-ahead.

On the night of June 3rd 1989, protests broke out in Tiananmen Square alongside other university cities. People’s Liberation Army tanks surrounded the activists, consisting of docile students, enraged labourers and Beijing citizens. The first fatal shots were fired at 10:45pm under orders to clear Tiananmen Square by dawn the next day or face the threat of military reprimand, and the final shots fired just before 5:00am. The government would officially declare 6 PLA soldier fatalities and 1,114 injuries as the people fought back with makeshift weapons, whereas there is no existing reliable figure of civilian casualties but it is assumed to be in the hundreds.

Accused of neglecting the Party elders and Deng Xiaoping in particular through “surrendering to the bourgeoisie”, Zhao was exiled from the Party through the Fourth Plenum in late June and placed under house arrest. Zhao Ziyang died under close observation in Beijing in 2005, and was denied the funerary rites owed to communist party members. In an attempt to subdue a social and political fire, Zhao’s efforts simply directly stoked the flames, with fatal consequences.


Richard Baum, Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping (New Jersey, 1994)

John Gittings, The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market (Oxford, 2006)

Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers (London, 2001)

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