Zhao Ziyang and Charles Freeman

The New York Times reports today of a rare and remarable occurrence, the publicly released memoir of communist Chinese leader – secretly recorded, in this case, during his zhao_ziyang-116-year house-arrest prior to his death, by former party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, deposed in 1989 for being soft on the Tiananmen demonstrators before the ultimate crackdown and massacre. The twentieth anniversary arrives June 5. Zhao recounts how China’s then supreme, behind-the-scenes leader, Deng Xiaoping, turned against him. He also asserts his belief that the demonstrators ““were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system.”

That is how Zhao saw it. He may or may not have been right, but he was closer to events than nearly everyone else, and he can’t be accused – unlike those who opposed and deposed him – of perception distorted by the desire to maintain power. We do know that in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations, once events were set in motion toward reform, they developed an irresistible momentum, and the same might have been so in China. Still, Zhao tells us, “I told myself that no matter what, I would not be the general secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.” This, in many alternative forms, was the decision made  by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Charles Freeman, on the other hand, who might have been the Chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council had not there been a swell of protests against him – by many then vilified for their opposition to him, and their motives – saw matters differently. A man who was touted by his supporters as a much needed opponent of orthodox analysis, his record reveals, in fact, an empathetic advisor to the wielders of power, a Cromwell to varied Henry Tudors, whether Saudi Kings or Chinese party bosses. Gorbachev and Ziyang – strong, clever men who climbed to the top of treacherously slippery poles – chose their people and human progress over power. Charles Freeman, who has cited approvingly General MacArthur’s attack on the U.S. “Bonus Army” in 1932, advocated the preservation of power – regardless of whose – and only lamented the lateness of the action.


We’ll never know how lucky we were. But we can imagine.


3 thoughts on “Zhao Ziyang and Charles Freeman

  1. Guess we weren’t meant to travel together to those other terrains. I’ll stick by your side in Indian Country. We’ll part ways in China clearly.


  2. Jay,

    You might want to be a little more inquisitive about the quotes attributed to Charles Freeman about Tiananmen. The quote came out of a online dialogue among a group of sophisticated China watchers (some less sophisticated than others) and specifically was addressing the “prevailing view in China,” and not Freeman’s view. Whether or not we in the West are discomfited by that fact, it is frankly incontrovertible and one of the saddest things to emerge from the tragedy now coming up on 20 years: the lesson Chinese learned from Tiananmen was that order is preferable to freedom of association.

    Any intelligence official or other policymaker that doesn’t acknowledge this and prepare accordingly is doomed to toil in ideological stupor. But since the Freeman saga was all about preserving the American policymaking community in a state of dogmatic slumber, it’s fair enough to continue to parrot inaccuracies. I just didn’t expect to be seeing this on an NA site.


    1. Walt,

      Thanks for your comment. I could say you might have been a little more inquisitive about the blog. (Does introducing that sentence with “I could say” mean I didn’t actually say it? Apropos Freeman’s Listserv commentary “addressing the ‘prevailing view in China,’ and not Freeman’s view,” but more on that in a post later.) It says in the banner “and other terrains” besides Indian Country, and the tag cloud, the drop down menus, and a review of other posts would quickly reveal that I write on a wide range of topics other than Native America.

      You write “it is frankly incontrovertible and one of the saddest things to emerge from the tragedy now coming up on 20 years: the lesson Chinese learned from Tiananmen was that order is preferable to freedom of association.” If that is a lesson “the Chinese” (the leadership? the people?) learned, it is one they (the leaders – and all despots, always) taught themselves, didn’t they, and that Charles Freeman firmly and clearly endorses. The common canard, which I’m afraid you parrot here (so many birds!), always offered when someone is hoisted high by his own verbal petard, is that he – Freeman, in this case – has been misrepresented in his comments. I’ll have more to say in that later post, but in the meantime, let’s all just look at a couple of those Listserv emails, here and here, and read what Freeman does or not clearly believe himself.


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