Review: Prisoner of the State–The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

5 Star, Best Practices in Management, Biography & Memoirs, Civil Society, Complexity & Resilience, Country/Regional, Economics, Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), History, Leadership, Power (Pathologies & Utilization)
Amazon Page
Amazon Page
5.0 out of 5 stars Editors Did Great, Could Have Gone Extra Mile
October 31, 2009
Zhao Ziyang
Most people miss the two bottom lines that I found engaging:

1. China’s government is a screwed up bureaucracy with petty egos just like ours.

2. China produced moderate pragmatist Premier Zhao Ziyang, promoted him, and empowered him.

With all due respect to all those wailing and moaning about the years of house arrest, this book is phenomenal for documenting the above two points alone, and Premier Zhao Ziyang will stand in history as one of the greatest leaders along with Mao Zedong (their rendition, I always preferred Mao Tse-tung) and Deng Xiaoping.


The book consists of six parts with thirty-sevel chapters bracketed by an introduction and an epilogue. It is based on tapes smuggled out from China and made secretly by Zhao Ziyang, and while I do not discount a marvelous Information Operation (IO) by the Chinese (along with Cuba, my two most admired counterpart intelligence services), on balance this appears to be the real deal.

The primary focus of this book is on the three years in power, NOT on the decades in provincial positions where he was a pragmatic and extraordinarily successful leader; nor on the decade of house arrest. This book is a “Memorandum for the Record” as the protagonist remembers it, naming names all along the way.

It is important to note that Zhao Ziyang was rehabilitated by Mao himself, and this is a testament to the fact that Zhao, like so many others, was improperly demoted to rehabilitation and remediation camps.

The book publishes the outcome of the failed investigation into Zhao Ziyang, which was itself never published in China or shared outside the small circle of power.

Most will focus on the student unrest and the Tieneman Square confrontation. While I have already summed up what mattered to me from this book, the following quote is very worthwhile: “I refused to be the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on the students.”

Deng comes across as a great leader who is open to change surrounded by others who prefer the planned economy, and having a difficult time “herding cats” at the top. I am very impressed by the agricultural reform and the move away from collective farming to “those who farm will have land,” which unleashed the entrepreneurial power of individual production.

There is a chapter on the special eceonomic zones, and a lot of focus on anti-corruption efforts which by this book’s account appear to have been overdone.

There was huge internal conflict over foreign investment, and a really impressive focus at the top on scale and efficiency. These are SMART leaders, whatever their petty peronal issues might be.

Zhao Ziyang ran the Chinese economy for ten years, and I put down the book stunned with both his success, and with the inadequacy of the book in communicating that success in raw terms related to the complexity of China, second perhaps only to India in that regard (complexity, they are co-equal in standing with Brazil, Indonesia, and Russia, and soon I might add Turkey and Iran).

He learned from the French and the British that massive irrigation projects seeking to control nature were not smart, and instead refocused China on farming with nature. See Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America for additional perspective on why this is so righteous.

I grew up in Asia, and still treasure the copy of The Little Red Book that was given to my father when he was acpatured by Vietnamese militia sailing past Hainan on his way to Hong Kong. I am very familiar with the catch phrases that China was always used to summarize complex policies, and this book does not lack of them:

“Emancipating the Mind” along with “Remaining Clean (of Corruption)” and “Practice is the sole criterion of Truth” are among my favorites from this particular work. China graduates more high school HONOR students than the USA graduates from across its ENTIRE dumbed-down high school population, and that’s the ugly truth.

In find 1988 featured in the protagonist’s memory as a really tough year, and observe that is also the year in which Bin Laden started the global creation of madrasses teaching the virulent form of Wahabbism funded by Saudi Arabia, and also the year in which General Al Gray, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, created the first intelligence center in the USA focused on global coverage, and realized that we were failing to both study the Third World and failing to make proper use of open sources of information. 1988 will be the year in which future histories begin their story about the implosion of the USA, the end of predatory immoral capitalism, and the rise of collective public intelligence and conscious capitalism.

I learn that China is *very* succeptible to rumor and panic buying.

I find the conclusion to be fantastic. In his reflections under house arrest, Zhoa Ziyang concluded that China must extablish political liberty to acompnay economic freedom, and stressed the need to manage multi-level dialog and freedom of the press. In retirement he found socialism shallow and converted to parliamentary democracy as the best possible means for managing complex China.

There is an analysis of Deng that includes a description of Deng as “empty words” and a conclusion that Deng absolutely refused actual political reform. Generally Deng is believed to have moved away from Mao, but to have been too senior for others to challenge so they took it out on Zhao instead. On balance, being already impressed with China’s economic progress, I can only wonder what might have been had Deng trusted his instincts and given Zhao all possible support.

The back of the book offers a listing of names with one paragraph biographies, but it is not enough. The publisher should consider re-issuing this important work with many diagrams that show “who’s who” in relation to specific party organs and policies across a time line. I have long stressed the need for a line of intelligence collection and analysis that focuses on “who said what when.” CIA still does not know how to do that (or want to do that), so on issues from the Spratley Islands to Africa to Argentina and China’s new south, generally the US Government has no clue.

I started to give this book four stars, but on review of my notes, I have to come up to five stars. If they re-do the book as I have suggested, it will be listed at Phi Beta Iota as Beyond 6 Stars.

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