On January 18, 2005, tucked away just above a weather report on page 4 of People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was a three-line notice reporting on the death of an elderly man: “Comrade Zhao Ziyang suffered from long-term diseases of the respiratory system and the cardiovascular system and had been hospitalized multiple times, and following the recent deterioration of his condition, he was unable to be rescued and died on January 17 in Beijing at the age of 85.”

A casual reader of the newspaper would certainly be forgiven for not noticing the item. The brief obituary was notable mainly for what it left out. It did not mention that Zhao had held China’s top two leadership posts, first as premier of the State Council and then as general secretary of the CCP. Nor did it acknowledge that he had made any contributions to China’s “reform and opening,” the agenda of economic development and openness to the world China pursued soon after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. The slogan “reform and opening” was still a centerpiece of official policy in 2005, mentioned nearly a dozen times in that day’s newspaper, but Zhao’s central role in shaping it had already been erased from official accounts of this period. Indeed, well before Zhao’s death, the CCP had rewritten the entire history of China’s 1980s—a tumultuous, transformational decade—and subjected it to far-reaching distortion, even though it was one of the most consequential periods in the country’s history.

This historical revision went beyond well-known official spin, such as denying the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. China’s rulers systematically blotted out many of the most important parts of the 1980s: that major political reforms were openly considered, alternative economic paths were debated, foreign influences were welcomed, and policy contestation itself was encouraged to produce better results.

Instead, the CCP told a triumphant story of wise, resolute decisions propelling China’s rise on the single correct path taken, bolstering its legitimacy. But party leaders did not censor history only to protect themselves. By writing out any forces pushing for alternative paths, they also shaped China’s future after the 1980s—dramatically limiting the range of possible paths that the country could take and seeking to end any uncertainty about how China ought to modernize. As George Orwell wrote in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Today, China stringently polices any versions of its history that run counter to the official narrative. The government has introduced new punishments for the crime of so-called historical nihilism. Laws have criminalized the “slander” of officially designated CCP heroes and martyrs, and openly writing about past liberalizing political reforms is forbidden. Chinese regulators even banned a gaming app for “distorting history.” The fuller history of the 1980s is a prime example of what the party refuses to tolerate. And the CCP left no doubt that it sees history as the essential material of Chinese politics when it issued a major resolution on party history for its hundredth anniversary, in 2021.

Of course, other governments rewrite history and always have—whether the damnatio memoriae of ancient Rome, where elites and emperors had their names and images desecrated after death, or the Soviet Union’s airbrushing of purged officials from photographs. National myths, and the brutalities of imperialism, racism, and authoritarianism they elide, are central to public life from the United States to South Africa to eastern Europe. China’s rulers themselves have been rewriting history for centuries, with great political effort devoted to crafting the annals of dynasties and suppressing alternative narratives. But to make sense of China today, it is more important than ever to understand how control over history shapes its politics.

What is today called the “China model”—rapid economic growth paired with authoritarian political control—was not the only vision of the future that China’s leaders pursued after Mao died. They imagined and experimented with many possible China models in the 1980s. Yet China’s rulers have worked hard to conceal this fuller story. One of the most momentous transformations of the twentieth century has been distorted to bolster the legitimacy of the CCP’s chosen path.

AN ERA OF OPENNESS

In popular accounts around the world—as well as in the official state narrative—the 1980s in China are typically treated as a time of linear change, moving from Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978 and the start of “reform and opening” to new heights of wealth and modernization. In this telling, the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen protests is at most a harsh interruption before the linear narrative resumes in 1992, with Deng pushing for faster economic reform on his famous “southern tour” of the country—setting the country on the path to becoming the world’s second-largest economy. This makes the 1980s sound like a tedious march up the mountain of GDP, beneath Deng’s benevolently outstretched hand.

But that story is a myth. The path that China took was not preordained. The 1980s in China were a period of extraordinary open-ended contestation and imagination. Chinese elites argued fiercely about the future. Official ideology, economic policy, technological transformation, and political reforms all expanded in many bold new directions. There was no grand plan or blueprint, as veteran party elders Deng, Chen Yun, and Li Xiannian and younger frontline leaders, such as Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, debated ideas and policies. Modes of economic and social organization changed underfoot. By the time student protesters filled Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, the leadership had not reached a consensus.

Senior leaders’ views were only one among many sources of ferment during the 1980s. Millions of people whose lives and educations had been disrupted by the Cultural Revolution returned to work and school in the late 1970s and sought to participate in China’s freewheeling modernization. GNP grew at dizzying rates, often over ten percent annually. The number of rural people below the official poverty line fell from 250 million at the beginning of the decade to 96 million by 1988.

Every step of the way was marked by policy debate and hard tradeoffs. Intellectual life proceeded at a feverish pace as controversial ideas and trends swept across Beijing and around the country. For example, Zhao became enamored in 1983 with Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and the idea of a global New Technological Revolution, and futurists’ books became bestsellers.  Less than a decade after Mao’s death, periodicals filled with dueling essays on contentious questions such as the relevance of Karl Marx’s theory of alienation and whether traditional Confucianism impeded China’s modernization.

China’s rulers systematically blotted out many of the most important parts of the 1980s.

Perhaps no subject attracted greater interest—and debate—than reforms to China’s political system. Although Deng had set out his “four cardinal principles,” the political issues that would not be permitted to change, he also described the Chinese political system as backward, burdened by “feudal” and “bureaucratic” influences—which opened the door for further debate.

For many senior officials, political reforms were ineluctably connected to China’s economic reform agenda. Initially, Hu and Zhao experimented with limited and largely administrative reforms; they prioritized streamlining government organs and improving efficiency while tackling graft. But as Zhao gained experience in the central leadership, his ambitions grew. His top priority became separating the party and the government, to increase accountability, transparency, and efficiency. But he was not alone in exploring these reforms. “Whenever we move a step forward in economic reform, we are made keenly aware of the need to change the political structure,” Deng said in 1986. “If we fail to do that, we shall be unable to preserve the gains we have made in the economic reform and to build on them, the growth of the productive forces will be stunted and our drive for modernization will be impeded.”

These arguments presented economic and political liberalization as deeply intertwined, even mutually reinforcing. Many officials and intellectuals saw these shifts as connected to political reforms underway elsewhere in the socialist world, including Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union. On October 14, 1987, Zhao said, “It seems that in socialist countries, the separation of party and government is a big trend.” Some CCP officials, however, were horrified at the idea of imposing new constraints on their own power. And Deng was emphatic that a “tripartite separation of powers” was completely unacceptable.

Bold political thinking came from both independent intellectuals and senior party officials. Vice Premier Wan Li, for example, delivered a speech in July 1986 that called for CCP leaders to “make close friends with some dissidents.” He declared, “I think we should remove the ban on free expression and encourage the free airing of views. We should let people really exercise their constitutional right of free expression. . . . This large socialist country of one billion people won’t be brought down by a few unpleasant words or inciting remarks.” Some senior officials praised this speech, and it was published on the front page of the People’s Daily, taking up the entirety of the front page above the fold. This message was not that of a radical outsider to the system. It was a message from a vice premier, broadcast to the public through the party’s mouthpiece. Zhao even discussed reforms in 1987 that included “opening up all kinds of permissible democratic consultation and lively social dialogue,” as well as “electoral issues” including county-level elections. This was not a liberal democracy in the making but an authoritarian state experimenting with meaningful reforms to its political system.

Plates featuring portraits of current and late Chinese leaders in Beijing, March 2018
Plates featuring portraits of current and late Chinese leaders in Beijing, March 2018
Jason Lee / Reuters

This intensive period of official debate about political system reform culminated at the 13th Party Congress of 1987, which endorsed such reforms as essential to the future of China’s modernization. After the meeting, the leadership took measures to separate party and government decision-making, including eliminating the concurrent holding of senior-level party and government positions, ending the practice of party organs intervening in government work, separating the party organization and government personnel systems, removing or marginalizing party cells in many organizations, and taking initial steps to create a civil service system. The government also launched several high-profile initiatives to increase transparency and accountability, including pilot projects in Beijing and Shanghai, and sought to bolster the still limited freedom of the press. New ideas about democracy, authoritarianism, and modernization were the subject of significant discussion. At the beginning of 1989, the potential pathways for China’s political reform were numerous and hotly contested.

All this changed on April 15, 1989, when the liberal-minded Hu Yaobang died unexpectedly, just two years after being removed from his position as CCP general secretary. Students marched to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mourn him—and this soon developed into a mass movement calling for democracy, accountability, and faster reform. The protesters occupied the square for weeks; the situation escalated after an editorial in the People’s Daily labeled the movement a “planned conspiracy” and a “disturbance.” Some senior leaders called for the imposition of martial law. Others, Zhao most prominent among them, pushed back strongly. As the protesters unveiled a statue that they called “The Goddess of Democracy” in the square, Zhao lost the power struggle at the top. He walked out to the square and apologized to the protesters: “Students, we came too late. Sorry, students. Whatever you say and criticize about us is deserved.”

China’s rulers imposed martial law, placed Zhao under house arrest, and promised “resolute and decisive measures to put an end to the turmoil.” They authorized troops to use force to clear Tiananmen Square and “restore order” in Beijing, leading to a massacre. Sitting in the courtyard of his home turned prison, Zhao could hear gunfire ringing out in the streets.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

As they cracked down, China’s remaining leaders also pushed out a new narrative about the events of the 1980s and their meaning for China’s future. For the CCP, this period in 1989 compressed into a few months, as one propaganda document phrased it, “an important historical period—reflecting on many problems and experiencing rapid changes in our understanding to an unimaginable degree.”

This telling of events was designed to serve China’s post-Tiananmen agenda. CCP leaders erased Zhao, argued for the absolute necessity of fusing the party and the state, and abandoned many of the political reforms pursued during the 1980s, among other changes. This process went well beyond the disciplining of cadres who had been too sympathetic to the protesters and the economic “retrenchment” that had begun in late 1988, caused by high inflation and a failed attempt at price reform. Before even replacing the tank-scarred stones of Tiananmen Square, they had pushed out their new version of China’s past and, in doing so, recast its future.

The most fundamental aspect of their rewriting of history centered on systematically splitting political reform from economic reform. The CCP reinterpreted the 1980s as a decadelong struggle between Deng’s authoritarian four cardinal principles and the bogeyman of “bourgeois liberalization,” which for Deng meant all intolerable forms of political, social, and ideological liberalization. Market-fueled growth was the correct goal for the economy, Deng stated, but the open consideration of broader liberalization in society, among intellectuals, and even among senior officials during the 1980s was a serious error. The party now flatly rejected the experimentation, open-endedness, and uncertainty that it had embraced in the preceding years.

At a conclave held June 19–21, 1989, to discuss the “turmoil” and Zhao’s fate, Zhao was given the opportunity to speak in his own defense. He insisted that it would be a grave error to bifurcate political and economic liberalization. Reform includes reform of the economic system and reform of the political system,” he said. “These two aspects affect one another . . . If [reform of the political system] lags too far behind, continuing with the reform of the economic system will be very difficult and various social and political contradictions will ensue.”

China stringently polices any versions of its history that run counter to the official narrative.

But Zhao’s comments went unheeded. The new official narrative introduced after the “turmoil” left no room for such open-endedness about China’s political system or for policies designed to significantly limit party power. A directive circulated on September 13, 1989, laid out the new line: “Political system reform must be conducive to strengthening and improving the party’s leadership. It by no means may downplay or weaken the party’s leadership, let alone abolish the party’s leadership.”

Soon thereafter, the propaganda apparatus began to erase Zhao from the record. This was more than just downplaying his role or criticizing some of his policies. It even went beyond the punishment of keeping him under house arrest. It was a totalizing effort to ensure that the history of China’s 1980s could be told without reference to a man who had led the country for the entire decade. A propaganda directive sent to publishers across the country on August 7, 1989, provided detailed instructions on how to erase Zhao: banning new books on him, requiring the destruction of existing biographies of him, and ordering that publishers excise his quotations from documents when possible and, if not possible, “the quoted material may be retained but should not include his personal name.” In addition, books and magazines “would no longer publish photographs of Comrade Zhao Ziyang . . . and reprinted or republished books will remove photographs of him.”

Watching from within his walled garden, Zhao saw himself become a historical nonperson, invisible in official accounts of the era that he had shaped and cast as irrelevant to China’s future. Whereas during the 1980s China’s rulers had considered many forms of liberalization and modernization, now they recommitted themselves to a new, narrower, and more authoritarian path. Political reforms could be allowed only if they served the goal of strengthening the CCP. And no matter how official or authoritative they had once been, alternative voices—and alternative histories—were silenced. “Some matters should be limited to only a portion of people to know and master,” Jiang Zemin, Zhao’s successor as CCP general secretary, said in late 1989. “What can be transparent and what can’t be transparent [all] depends on whether it is conducive to social stability, political stability, economic stability, and stability in the people’s hearts.”

This rectification continued and broadened in the autumn of 1989 and the following years. For the CCP leadership, the stakes only grew as the Berlin Wall fell and political changes swept across eastern Europe. Deng said, “So long as socialism does not collapse in China, it will always hold its ground in the world.” Especially after the Soviet Union’s collapse, China’s rulers saw their country as a socialist survivor in a dangerous capitalist world.

The path that China took was not preordained.

Their new enemies were both domestic and foreign. Among the perceived villains was the Hungarian American financier George Soros, who was accused of plotting with Zhao’s advisers to promote the “peaceful evolution” of China from socialism to capitalist democracy. Domestically, broader purges of wrong-thinking intellectuals, officials, and workers were widespread, brutal, and conducted largely in secret.

In 1992, after these changes took hold, Deng went on his famed southern tour, visiting the special economic zones on China’s southern coast to revive and accelerate economic reform, but he evinced no interest in shifting away from the new official narrative of China’s modernization. To succeed on this path, the CCP would continue to pursue rapid economic growth without significant political liberalization, promoting the idea that this configuration was the only viable path for China—and rewriting history to occlude the fact that it had pursued alternatives.

A FORBIDDEN LEGACY

As China’s economic growth once again took off, its success seemed so staggering that the commentariat increasingly treated China’s bifurcation of political and economic liberalization as inevitable and natural. Images ran rife of China as a model “better than democracy” and “a rich, super-large Singapore”—the fruits of a system that American journalist Nicholas Kristof acerbically termed “Market-Leninism” in 1993.

In practice, however, the CCP remained haunted by the Soviet collapse, seeing economic development and continued CCP dominance of society, the military, and historical narrative as the keys to success. The CCP has remained adaptive and at times experimental in its strategies of governance, but these adaptations are overwhelmingly refinements to autocracy.

What of the forbidden history of China’s 1980s? Despite the many challenges, some Chinese writers have not stopped trying to record the past. They use strategic circumlocutions to refer to purged figures, such as calling Zhao “a leading comrade in the central government at that time.” They push boundaries and test the limits of acceptable discourse—even though the limits are firm. “I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place,” Chinese novelist Yan Lianke has written. “It now appears the opposite is true. . . . You will be awarded power, fame, and money as long as you are willing to see what is allowed to be seen, and look away from what is not allowed to be looked at; as long as you are willing to sing the praises of what needs to be praised and ignore what needs to be blanked out.”

At least for now, as Yan writes, the safest bet within China is often simply to pretend that this history never existed. Sometimes this causes unexpected moments of candor—such as, several years ago, when the scriptwriter of a propaganda television series on Deng was asked at a news conference why he had decided to stop the show abruptly in the early 1980s, though Deng had remained powerful for years thereafter. The writer’s answer was memorably frank: “Because after 1984 would be too difficult to write,” he said. “It would be too hard to handle.” Yet even if this history can be repressed, it cannot be entirely erased. It could one day become what the American cultural critic Van Wyck Brooks called “a usable past”—salvaged to help shape China’s future, uncertain though it may be.

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