Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book Review: Prisoner of the State, the Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang
Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang
When I first heard about this book, I was immediately intrigued. It's not every day the head of an insular global power publishes a tell-all memoir. It's taken me a while to get to it, but I wanted to read it to get some sort of understanding of modern China. I've never really read a book on modern (post-Mao) China and I figured this would be a good start. I'll confess to being pretty ignorant about modern China. I started the book knowing a little about Deng Xiaoping, but my knowledge was pretty limited beyond that.

One of my first worries about the book was how accessible it would be. The editors included 2 forwards, 2 epilogues, 2 timelines, and an index of names with brief bio's. They did a fantastic job. Their one mistake was they put the afterword written by Bao Pu (the son of Zhao's secretary) at the end. If you read the book, read his part first. It will make the rest of the book much more clear.

There are a lot of assumptions that I'll have to make for the review. I'll have to more or less take Zhao's word on much of the internal events. It's not like China's state-run news agency is going to start publishing meeting minutes. I'm also going to assume Bao Pu, et. al. left Zhao's writing as it was with minimal editing. The text looks a little rough around the edges, so I think that's a solid assumption. It's also really odd to read about the hardcore Maoists as the "Conservatives" and the Free-Marketeers as the "Liberals," but it makes sense for a lot of reasons (i.e.- classical liberalism).

One of the editorial decisions that was made was to rearrange the book. It starts with the events leading up to the massacre, then his time under house arrest, then the rise of Deng Xiaoping and the "reformers", including Zhao, and the scourge of corruption. The book ends with a careful analysis that the only way for the Communist Party to hold power is to build respect for the Rule of Law, (as opposed to the current Rule by Men), combat corruption, and introduce parliamentary democracy.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: this isn't an easy read. The editors wanted it to be Zhao's own words. Fortunately, if you get bogged down, each chapter begins with a summary and you can just read the summaries until you get back into familiar territory. One thing that took me ages to figure out was whether Zhao was a canny politician or naive, or what. I eventually decided he was pretty canny and had he gotten a couple of breaks, we'd all (in the West) know his name by now.

I learned a lot in the book. One of the more interesting references, I was able to find on the glorious internet. River Elegy is a documentary that caused a huge stir by criticizing Chinese culture for turning inward and calling on China to turn to the world. Here is River Elegy:

(~60 minutes, with the first few minutes of introduction)

I learned a little about Sun Yat-Sen (the "George Washington of China"), Journey to the West (one of the Chinese classics), and more. Had Zhao just written a book ripping the heads of the Party, the book would be a lot less interesting. He wrote a very thoughtful, informative account of modern China. I was looking for a good primer on modern China and I think I found it. That book is also a lot more dangerous to the Chinese government than an emotional screed.

One thing I'm really interested in is how the Chinese have reacted to the book. Journey of Reforms, the Chinese version of the book, sold its first 14,000 copies out and it's now the most sought-after book in Hong Kong. In mainland China, where the book is banned, a Microsoft Word version of the book is being spread like a virus (immune from the Great Firewall of China).

Anyway, that's the review. I hope you liked it. If you've read it, I'd be interested to hear what you thought of the book.

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