Whatever the fallout, one element will likely stay constant: This same group of men -- mostly from a set of quarreling families bound together by common interests and long used to surviving turmoil and 180-degree policy shifts -- will remain in power. Like a seal on a rolling ball, they are good at staying on top.
But to keep its balance, the group sometimes needs to sacrifice a wayward member. In 1989, Zhao, then the Communist Party's general secretary and the major architect of China's economic reforms, was such a victim. Zhao had argued for "dialogue" over martial law as a way to handle the pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. On May 17, 1989, he was overruled, and on May 19 stripped of power. On June 4, soldiers fired on demonstrators in the streets of Beijing, killing hundreds. Zhao was charged with "splitting the party" and "supporting turmoil," and was confined to house arrest until his death in 2005.
Now, in "Prisoner of the State," a book timed to appear precisely 20 years since his purge, Zhao speaks from beyond the grave. He flouts the unspoken rule against public blame of others of the group. He skewers Li Peng, Li Xiannian, Yao Yilin, Deng Liqun, Hu Qiaomu and Wang Zhen repeatedly and by name. He complains that the meeting at which martial law was decided was in violation of the Party Charter because he, the general secretary, should have chaired any such meeting but was not even notified of it.
The book is based on about 30 audiotapes he discreetly recorded at home during 1999 and 2000. Clips from the tapes are to be released simultaneously with the book, and a Chinese-language transcription is supposed to appear around the same time. The material is largely consistent with what is already known from the "The Tiananmen Papers," an unauthorized compilation of government documents published in 2001, and from "Captive Conversations," a Chinese-language record of conversations between Zhao and his friend Zong Fengming, published in 2007. But the up-close-and-personal tone of the present book stands out.
Scholars will mine "Prisoner of the State" for historical nuances. It is clearer here than elsewhere that Zhao was already in serious political trouble in 1988, before the democracy movement began; and that Zhao had bickered with Hu Yaobang over economic policy as early as 1982, even though the two reformist leaders needed each other. Deng Xiaoping appears more strikingly than elsewhere as a Godfather figure: Other leaders jockey for access to him, dare not contradict him and use his words to attack one another. Yet even Deng seeks to avoid responsibility for difficult decisions. The group has dictatorial power, yet is rife with insecurity.