Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang translated by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius (Simon & Schuster, May 19, 2009), 336 pages

Zhao Ziyang was China’s premier during the Tiananmen Square protests. He acted to prevent the massacre and was forcibly removed from power — and lived the rest of his life under house arrest — because of his actions. He was also instrumental in choreographing and instituting economic reform in the years leading up to what he calls the July Fourth incident. Zhao grew to believe that continued economic reforms and success required political reforms and further openness from the government, in addition to a free press.

In these secret journals, which he recorded around 2000, he not only recounts these events and his economic and political strategies and actions, he also addresses misconceptions and misinformation and accepts responsibility for his own mistakes. The journals were uncovered after Zhao’s death in 2005.

I haven’t read a book that had the word bourgeois in it so many times in a very long time, certainly not since college. I was struck by the huge challenge attempting reforms and instituting a free market would be where the other leaders don’t speak freely to each other.

I was glad for an excuse to learn more about this period of China’s history. I don’t remember the Tiananmen Square massacre (I was still a child), although I’ve heard them referenced probably ever since they first happened.

For a book about economics and politics, I really enjoyed this book. The writing is not overly academic (I’m guessing the conversational tone is because the book is translated from oral journals.) but rather quite approachable. My love for all things China may have smoothed my path through the book, though.

I would have loved to read more about the (notably absent from this book) cultural and religious elements of the story. I would also have loved to read about leading up to and during/after the Beijing Olympics.

I read this book as part of a collaborative effort on the part of many bloggers to collective read and review all 50 of the books Newsweek listed as Books of our Times. The list as a whole was daunting, so we split it up! Great idea, Amy! All 50 books were claimed pretty quickly, and many of the titles have more than one person reviewing them.

The epilogue argues that the China portrayed in this book is today’s China. Whether that’s the case or not, this book is certainly relevant to us, today. China is growing so quickly, in so many sectors. We must pay attention.

See other reviews of books from the Newsweek list.

Other reviews
Have you reviewed this book? Leave me a link and I’ll add it here.

I checked this book out from the library.


4 responses to “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

  1. Sounds like a good one. I’m glad to hear it’s more conversational than academic, as I like to learn more about history without being bored. (I went through enough of that in college!) Thanks for the review.


  2. I figured this would be over my head, but your review makes me think I would be able to understand it. Thanks!

  3. I’m not sure I’d make it through this one. At any rate, I had not heard about Amy’s project of reading the Newsweek Books of Our Times. I’m off to see if I can possibly fit this reading into my already overloaded reading schedule.

  4. This sounds like a pretty informative book. That you would have liked to see more cultural and religious elements to the story means I probably will too. Politics can be a pretty tough read for me if there isn’t a lot of other stuff to help me propel through the pages.

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