Despite spending his career in the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang ultimately acknowledges that China’s system is far from a democratic ideal and concludes that a parliamentary democracy is the best course for a modern state and should be China’s goal.
He even suggests that China could learn a thing or two from Taiwan.
After I stepped down in 1989 and with the changes that occurred both at home and abroad, I started to develop a new understanding of China’s political reform.
I once believed that people were the masters of their own affairs not in the parliamentary democracies of the developed nations in the West, but only in the Soviet and socialist nations’ systems with a people’s congress, making the latter system more advanced and a better realised form of democracy.
This, in fact, is not the case. The democratic systems of our socialist nations are all just superficial; they are not systems in which the people are in charge, but rather are ruled by a few or even a single person.
Of the various political systems that existed in the world during the 20th century, absolute monarchies and the fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy have been eliminated. There have been military dictatorships, but they have existed briefly or are losing support. Even though they often appeared in very underdeveloped nations — for example, the military rule in South American nations — they have all steadily turned out to be brief episodes in these nations’ gradual march toward parliamentary politics. For several decades during the 20th century, the so-called “new democratic system,” the proletarian dictatorship, competed with the Western parliamentary system. But in the vast majority of these nations, it has since receded from the historical stage.
In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. This system is currently the best one available. It is able to manifest the spirit of democracy and meet the demands of modern society, and it is a relatively mature system.
Of course, this system is not perfect; it has many problems. Yet relatively speaking, this system is best suited to a modern civilisation, more adaptable to shifts in public opinions and most capable of realising democracy. Moreover, it is more stable. The vitality of the system has grown increasingly clear. Almost all developed nations have adopted a parliamentary democracy.
In the past few decades, the newly emerging nations with their fast-paced development have illustrated more clearly the trend to converge on a parliamentary democratic system. I am certain this is not by chance. Why is there not even one developed nation practising any other system? This shows that if a country wants to modernise, to realise a modern market economy, it must practise parliamentary democracy as its political system.
Of course, it is possible that in the future a more advanced political system than parliamentary democracy will emerge. But that is a matter for the future. At present, there is no other.
Based on this, we can say that if a country wishes to modernise, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentary democracy as its political system. Otherwise, this nation will not be able to have a market economy that is healthy and modern, nor can it become a modern society with a rule of law. Instead it will run into the situations that have occurred in so many developing countries, including China: commercialisation of power, rampant corruption, a society polarised between rich and poor.
However, it must be noted that parliamentary democracies exist primarily in developed nations and emerging ones. Some of the developing countries practised parliamentary politics early on but could not fully realise its potential, and problems developed: the government has trouble exercising its authority, society was not stable enough, military coups were staged using these problems as an excuse. This also shows that parliamentary democracy, which is modern, advanced, civilised, and mature, must have certain necessary conditions and that not just any nation can adopt and use it well.
Given current conditions in China, we must establish that the final goal of political reform is the realisation of this advanced political system. If we don’t move towards this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China’s market economy: issues such as an unhealthy market, profiting from power, rampant social corruption, and a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor will the rule of law ever materialise. In order to resolve these problems, we must in concrete terms conduct political reform with this as our goal.
On the other hand, given the reality in China, we need a relatively long period of transition. The experiences of other Asian nations are worthy of our attention in this regard. For example, territories and nations such as Taiwan and South Korea have gradually made the transition from their old systems to a parliamentary system, and have had positive experiences that we would benefit from studying.
In China, for the sake of a smoother transition, at least for a while, we should maintain the ruling position of the Communist Party, while changing how the party rules. It might still be the right approach.
This would be a good starting point: first, because it would help maintain stability in society and create a good environment for economic, social, and cultural development, and second, it would facilitate a smooth transition to a more mature, civilised, and democratic political system as economic, social, and cultural conditions change. In other words, we should not rush to copy wholesale (a new political system) all at once. However, we must march toward this goal, and absolutely should not move in the opposite direction. We must refrain from perverse actions that don’t facilitate, or are even subversive to, achieving this goal.
How long this transition lasts must be determined by social developments. It is critical that the leadership of the Communist Party adhere to this belief. Then it can respond skilfully to circumstances as they arise, gradually, step-by-step, according to the right priorities.
If the final destination is a parliamentary democracy, the ruling party must achieve two breakthroughs. One is to allow other political parties and a free press to exist. This can happen gradually, but it must be pursued. The second breakthrough is having democracy within the party: that is, the party needs to adopt democratic procedures and use democratic means to reform itself.
In the past, during the war years and the early years of the republic, there was a need to emphasise centralisation and discipline. However, it would be impossible to make the transition from a revolutionary party to a governing party, and to lead society’s transition to a system of parliamentary politics if the party doesn’t practise a thorough democratic system within itself. The existence of legitimate differences of opinion must be allowed within the party. Even Chairman Mao said that the minority should be protected in the party. Different opinions must be allowed to exist, and different factions should be made legitimate. In debates and competitions, different sides within the party should all observe the same rules.
It would be wrong if our party never makes the transition from a state that was suitable in a time of war to a state more suitable to a democratic society. This breakthrough must occur. Of course, there will be the issue of the nationalisation of the military. More important, the reform of the legal system and an independent judiciary should take precedence.
Our hope is for the ruling position of the Communist Party to be maintained for a considerable period of time, so that the transition can be made under its leadership and preparation made in an orderly manner. As for how long the Communist Party keeps its ruling position, this should be determined by the consequences of society’s political openness and the competition between the Communist Party and other political powers. If we take the initiative and do this well, the ruling position of the Communist Party could be maintained for a very long time. However, this ruling position must be maintained by using the constitution to monopolise this status. Rather, the party must be made to compete for it. I believe that this is ultimately a worldwide trend that we cannot defy.
If we act with initiative, it will be beneficial to the party, society, and the people. Any other approach will be harmful. The trend is irrefutable, that the fittest will survive. As Sun Yat-sen said, “Worldwide trends are enormous and powerful; those who follow them prosper, and those who resist them perish.”
I believe the time has come for us to tackle this issue seriously.
Zhao Ziyang’s political career ended with the Tiananmen incident of 1989, but the debate over China’s reform continued.
A resurgence of the anti-liberalisation campaign that Zhao had feared would follow Tiananmen did not materialise. But the party suffered serious damage to its reputation and was condemned by the world for its excessive military reaction.
Deng Xiaoping’s alliance with party elders to topple Zhao resulted in disarray in the new leadership group and brought the reform movement to a standstill. The result was a slump in real GDP growth in the two years following the Tiananmen incident, the most dramatic slowdown since 1976. Deng saw his legacy endangered and the possibility that all the gains made by the economic reforms would go to waste. He could not let this happen.
Deng’s last important political action was his renowned “southern tour” of the special economic zones in 1992, a move that revitalised the economic reform programs.
The trip was timed to force the upcoming 14th Party Congress later that year to reaffirm further reforms. Those who had manoeuvred to ditch economic reform were pushed into compliance by Deng’s southern tour. They had watched the Soviet Union collapse; they had lost the trust of the Chinese people after the Tiananmen massacre and had been powerless to improve the economy. However, 1992 marked the end of the debate over the transformation to a free market economy. The outcome has been the transformation of China into a 21st century economic powerhouse with a renowned insistence on authoritarian autocracy.
Still under house arrest, Zhao Ziyang died on January 17, 2005.
Extract from Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, translated and edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang and Adi Ignatius, Simon & Schuster 2009