Zhao Ziyang and China’s Lost Opportunity

Zhao Ziyang
Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s by Julian Gewirtz

A review of Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s by Julian Gewirtz from Harvard University Press. 

Review by Justin Kempf

Zhao Ziyang

I will admit that I never gave Zhao Ziyang much thought. He comes across as a supporting character without significant influence for China’s history or politics. Deng Xiaoping receives most of the credit and blame during his time as Premier and General Secretary. David Shambaugh does not even provide Zhao a profile in his historical overview of China’s Communist leaders From Mao to Now. Still, his absence is due as much to our oversimplification of China’s political history as our exaggeration of Deng’s importance. Julian Gewirtz seeks to rectify this error. He points out, “Deng was not regularly and actively engaged in policymaking throughout the 1980s.”

Gewirtz challenges many preconceptions about China and its history in his new book Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s. Perhaps the most remarkable is his emphasis on the unlikely protagonist Zhao Ziyang. Gewirtz makes the case for the importance of Zhao as an influential figure during a turbulent and uncertain era. Zhao, according to Gewirtz, played a key role in efforts to reform the economic and political system of China. Indeed, during this period “reforms of the political system were deeply connected to reforms of the economic system.”

Still, Gewirtz does not portray Zhao as a hero, but rather as a tragic figure. Political reform for Zhao meant meaningful checks and balances on political power. Zhao believed open debate and discussion was necessary to improve political decision making.  Yet his economic failures came because he ignored advisors and experts. Moreover, he embraced “neo-authoritarianism” and supported “the methods of dictatorship.” His own support for democracy was frequently opportunistic rather than consistent or genuine. At the same time, Zhao sacrificed his career in a defense of the protesters at Tiananmen Square in a final heroic political act.

Never Turn Back

I personally found Julian Gewirtz’s Never Turn Back an entertaining read. It provided a deep dive into an era of China that I had not taken the time to examine. But Gewirtz offers more than a dry accounting of economic policy and political machinations. He develops an almost literary arc of a tragic, yet forgotten figure in the character of Zhao Ziyang. In this way, Zhao becomes a metaphor for China itself. It conveys a desire to reform, yet a tragic flaw prevents genuine reform from taking hold.

Yet, Zhao redeems himself at Tiananmen. His words to the protesters are nothing short of astonishing. He begins his speech like this, “Students, we came too late. Sorry, students. Whatever you say and criticize about us is deserved. My purpose here now is not to ask for your forgiveness….” He pleads for them to leave. He tries to save them, because he knows the leadership has already ordered their massacre. Afterwards, Zhao loses his political office and any influence he once had.

But Zhao did not believe China was condemned to its fate. He tells the students “You are not like us, we are already old, and do not matter.” He knew the future of China depended on future generations. This is really the message of Never Turn Back. It offers a message of hope for the future of China.  It is a prayer for its future leaders. A prayer for their redemption.

Justin Kempf manages the Democracy Paradox blog and hosts its podcast. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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