Under my byline


Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 6 June 2009

Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State


In the year of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, one unusual voice has escaped the Chinese clampdown. The memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, ex-premier and general secretary of the Communist Party of China at the time of the “June 4 incident” (as it is called in China), were published last month in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The book is moving up the bestseller lists.

Zhao, almost alone in the top Party hierarchy, wanted to avoid violent confrontation, reasoning that the students on Tiananmen Square and around China were not so much counter-revolutionary as making specific demands within the system. On May 19, apparently in a last-ditch effort to avert bloodshed, he himself went walkabout on the Square with a bullhorn, urging the students to end their hunger strike and cooperate with the government to resolve their concerns. But the aged Deng Xiaoping, who ran the country from behind the scenes, sided with the hardliners, overruled Zhao and imposed martial law. Zhao was put under house arrest for the rest of his life. He died in 2005.

But in those late, closeted years, Zhao chose to break the collective silence. He managed to dictate 30 audiocassettes’ worth of his memories, which were smuggled out of the country by friends and associates. Now they have been translated and published. One of the translators is Bao Pu, whose father Bao Tong was a senior aide to Zhao and is still under house arrest in Beijing.

It’s unprecedented — top Party officials do not publish memoirs. Attention naturally has focused on decision-making at the shadowy core of Chinese government, on what Zhao says about the days that led up to the massacre, as well as on his opinion of “the Western parliamentary democratic system” (cautiously positive). One must read with a certain scepticism, of course, since Zhao had plenty of time to improve upon his memories, but one cold moment stands out: “On the night of June 3, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all.” There’s something there which is both sad and grand, and also perhaps historically aware.

So Zhao exercised his autonomy in confinement and beyond the grave. His little escapade will not shake the regime, yet it is a reminder that words and language have always been at the very centre of incarceration. Here (according to Time magazine) is the Party’s justification for Zhao’s imprisonment: “Comrade Zhao Ziyang committed the serious mistake of supporting the turmoil and splitting the Party.” Not a word there is without its shades of convenient meaning. In speaking out, Zhao put his words up in living opposition to this bland erasure.

Before him, hundreds of writers have done the same. Literature is replete with works composed or inspired in prison. Among the early survivals is Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy, one of the founding texts of medieval Christianity, presented as a conversation between Boethius imprisoned by Theodoric the Ostrogoth and Lady Philosophy in which she reminds him of the transitory nature of fortune and the comparative permanence of the mind. Other prisoner-authors include Miguel de Cervantes, Walter Raleigh, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Oscar Wilde, the Marquis de Sade, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Adolf Hitler, Antonio Gramsci, Ezra Pound, Jawaharlal Nehru, the amazing Jean Genet, and so on.

Yet pay heed to Michel Foucault, who in Discipline and Punish (1975) looked at Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design for prisons, where all the many inmates are always visible to the few jailers sitting at the centre but not to each other, and saw a chilling metaphor for the modern surveillance society. We’re all being watched these days in our multiple cells; government doesn’t yet know what to do with all the data and tools at its disposal but it will learn.

Already the famous author is a prisoner of his celebrity and ceases to engage with the world save through his writing; ordinary readers are prisoners of their education and condition and have ceased to connect imagination with utility; not even children are given much space to wonder. And like jailors, not free men, we learn, absorb, write and speak in acceptable euphemisms.


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