Book Review: Prisoner of the State

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This book is very different than most I review.  First, it should not have existed.  While the author was under house arrest, he found time to dictate the book, recording over music tapes of his children & grandchildren.  He then  handed out the tapes few-by-few to friends who then somehow gathered them together into one place to create this book which is available in English and Chinese.  (Again, to those reading this at Amazon, there are links at my blog.)

Zhao Ziyang was a member of the Chinese Communist Party from his youth, joining the party at age 19.  He proved to be an able administrator, and the provinces that he served/led tended to prosper.

Why did they prosper?  He gave them more freedom economically.  Control was only at the highest levels, whereas low level control in other provinces of China tended to produce bad results.  Freeing up agriculture aided the Chinese economy in a large way: the people no longer starved.

Zhao kept his head low during “The Great Leap Forward,” and also during “The Cultural Revolution.”  Until he became Premier in 1980, he kept his head low.  He was the sort of guy who got things done quietly, and did not trumpet his achievements.

As Premier, he was entrusted with oversight over the Chinese economy.  Because of his prior successes he was inclined to offer more an more freedom to the economy, and did so until his ouster in 1989.  This resulted in considerable economic growth, but also resentment from hardliners, who felt that they were losing control of China.

In 1985, the hardliners started to go after Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the Party, who was relatively liberal on freeing up the economy.  By 1987, they oust him, and against his wishes, Zhao Ziyang becomes the General Secretary of the Party.

In April of 1989, Hu Yaobang dies.  Students protest in the streets because he had offered some hope of political reform.  Zhao urges lenience to the protestors, and urges them to go back to their studies.  They continue the protest.  The hardliners prevail upon Deng Xiaoping to use the military against the students, who may have wanted to preserve Zhao’s decision, but not against unified opposition from hardliners in the Party.

Zhao chose to step down, rather than enforce Deng’s decision, which came with no vote in favor on the Standing Committee.  The Tienanmen massacre occurred, and Zhao Ziyang was confined to his home for the next 15+ years.

That’s the history, and very brief.  Here are a few things to make the matters more clear:

To those in the upper levels of the Party, the Cultural Revolution was a horror.  The ideological rigidity of the far left of the Party was stifling, and being killed or re-educated for slight variations from the party line was not something that most wanted to repeat after the death of Mao.  We can all be grateful that Mao recalled Deng from re-education shortly before his death.

Zhao Ziyang worked as a “fitter” at the Xiangzhong mechanics factory in Lianyuan County, in the Province of Hunan during part of the Cultural Revolution.  He was purged in 1967, and restored relatively quickly in 1971.

But there were some in the Party who did not like any type of reform.  They liked the control from the Marxist/Leninist policies, whether they grew the economy or not.  Even if rejecting the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, they still wanted as much control as possible.  Those “Party Elders” made life tough for Hu and Zhao.

Deng Xiaoping was a man who wanted the benefits of free markets, but would not free politics.  He saw how the experiments of Hu and Zhao were leading to a stronger economy, but did not want to countenance the idea of Democracy.  He wanted the Communist Party to have singular control over the economy, because it enabled the government to act quickly as it needed, with all the resources of China at its disposal.  Deng wanted economic reform, but when it was convenient for him to placate hardliners, he threw Hu, then Zhao, under the bus.  He eventually in 1992 took a tour through the special economic zones of Southern China, showing his alliance with economic reform.

Deng wanted political reform, but that has various meanings.  To Hu and Zhao, it meant more democracy and economic freedom.  To Deng, it meant cleaning up the corruption that inevitably occurs in a mixed system — socialism typically has a lot of corruption.  Deng was not realistic; you can’t change the nature of man.  Hu and Zhao knew that freeing things up would eliminate incentives to cheat.

At the end of the book, Zhao talks about the need to move China, or at least the Party, to some form of Democracy, with checks and balances, which is something that Deng does not want, because it slows the government’s power to act.

Zhao and Hu were two men born ahead of their time.  Every citizen of China should be grateful for all they did and suffered, because they tried to promote your liberty.


In general, I think Zhao was naive, and Hu was tone-deaf.  Hu did not respond to the requests of Deng to act on bourgeois liberalism.  Zhao let the student demonstrations after Hu’s death  frame him.

After he was confined to his house, he appealed to many senior party members as to what the Chinese Constitution said was illegal about his imprisonment.  He was naive.  After going through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, why should anyone believe that the Chinese Government would honor its own constitution?  After all, there is no division of powers, as Zhao sought, and Deng did not.

Who would benefit from this book:   Anyone who wants to understand the politics and economics of China better would benefit from this book.  If you want to, you can buy it here: Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.

Full disclosure: I bought this book with my own money.

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