Big Think Interview with Adi Ignatius

A Conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of Harvard Business Review
  • Transcript


Question: How did you become interested in the subject of China?

Adi Ignatius:  I was lucky enough to have gotten in one of the first commercial tours of China after Carter normalized relations with Beijing in the late ‘70s and, I had about 6 months to prepare and I was thinking -- we all felt like Marco Polo back then -- ''How do I prepare?'' I started taking Chinese lessons and I just absolutely fell in love with Chinese and with China when I made the trip and my career path was forged: qs soon as I graduated from college I went out to Hong Kong and worked for a magazine there and within a few years was ''The Wall Street Journal’s'' bureau chief in Beijing so that was really my passion in those years.

Question: How did you first come in contact with Zhao’s memoirs?

Adi Ignatius: The Zhao Memoir project was a tightly held secret among just a very few of us for more than a year and the person who brought me into it was my co-editor and co-producer in the project, Bao Pu. Bao Pu is a very interesting figure. He’s the son of a very important person in the modern Chinese politics, Bao Tong. Bao Tong was Zhao Ziyang’s primary aide and after the Tiananmen crackdown and killings on June 4th 1989, Zhao, who was the Communist Party secretary, was put in house arrest where he remained for the last 16 years of his life before he died in 2005.

Bao Tong, his aide, actually was sent to prison, under solitary confinement for many of the 7 years that he was away. His son, Bao Pu, is in Hong Kong. He is a U.S. passport holder and became the person who was entrusted with making this project happen.

Zhao, before he died under house arrest, was secretly under the nose of his captors recording 30 hours of tape—his secret journal about what really happened behind the scenes during Tiananmen: how the politburo really interacted with one another, how he tried to stop the crackdown and lost the argument and lost his job for it.

He entrusted a few people to smuggle the tapes out of the country. They eventually made it to Hong Kong where Bao Pu was entrusted with getting it together and making this project happen. He needed somebody like me—a Western journalist who could help polish the language, who could write introductions that would create context for American readers who don’t know all the Chinese history, and to find a publisher.

He brought me into this about a year and a half ago and we had to keep it secret because we have a fear that if the Chinese government knew about this they would squeeze Zhao’s children, most of whom are still in China and are doing business. They would squeeze them to say, ''Do whatever you can to stop this project'' and that would probably have succeeded. Somehow, we managed to keep this a very tightly held secret until publication.

Question: Why was Zhao's story an important story for you to tell?

Adi Ignatius: After the crackdown in 1989, the Chinese government has sort of spun its version of what really happened, what was that movement all about—this was 20 years ago, a whole generation. So there are a lot of young Chinese people who don’t really know the truth about what happened then.

The truth as Zhao describes it is this was not a protest movement that threatened the state or order. In fact, it was almost entirely peaceful, and the people who participated had various reasons for taking part but they were idealistic.

What Zhao’s book makes clear is there was somebody at the highest levels, in fact the highest level, who saw that we did not need to crack down this movement, that there was an energy there that was about making China a better place, helping China’s reforms continue—and people in China don’t realize that. The line that they’re fed now is that there was rebellion, there were some bad people manipulating it, it had to be put down, and any reason will government would do the same thing they did if there was rebellion in their capital.

The truth is, there wasn’t a rebellion until the government sent troops in and brought everybody in Beijing out in the street in a state of agitated concern and at that point they had a lot of people who were fighting them, and they shot their way through the city and into Tiananmen Square.

I think it’s important to tell the truth about what happened in Tiananmen, but more importantly, Zhao talks about the need in China for a democratic system. He talks about a kind of Western parliamentary system. This is then no longer about history—it enters the dialogue about the concerns Chinese people are having all the time about the future of China. What does China need to be? The deal that the government is offering them is, ''We will let you get rich, but we will not give you any political freedom. If you challenge the state, if you challenge the communist party, you may be arrested. You may be 'disappeared'.''

I think what this book is showing is that, now, at this high level, there are people who are thinking about another way where political freedom can not only assist in economic development but can be valuable for society in its own right. Who knows how this book will affect that dialogue?

Question: What was Zhao’s relationship to the events of June 4th?

Adi Ignatius: One of the reasons that things got worse is that when the student movement really broke out, Zhao was in North Korea. This was a long standing state visit he felt he couldn’t cancel, so he was out of the decision making at a very crucial point when this movement would have, I think, died out pretty quickly.

Students first started to march after the death of Hu Yaobang, who had been party general secretary until being purged a couple of years earlier. He wasn’t the most charismatic figure in the world but he was a relative liberal—he was real, and had a heart that a lot of these communist party officials don’t show, and so when he died the students used him as a symbol to express their discontent with a lot of things including the general level of political freedom.

I really think this would have died down relatively quickly had the government not made the very unfortunate decision of printing a very scary editorial in the official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, that branded the student movement as unpatriotic and counter-revolutionary—terms that are very charged in China.

They were basically applying these terms to students who had felt idealistic, felt they were keeping up a tradition of marching and protesting in the interest of Chinese society. It had the effect. It was very disappointing and taken as a challenge and so the day after this editorial, which was meant to intimidate them and get this thing over with, the biggest protest to date erupted. When Zhao came back from North Korea he was basically saying, “Look there was this editorial that made things worse. Let’s back away from it. Let’s find a way from it. I’ll even take responsibility for it. So it was my mistake but we need to back away from this because it has clearly makes things worse.”

Now, here you have the problem with a non-modern political system. Basically, the editorial represented Deng Xiaoping’s thinking. Deng was the supreme leader of China then. He didn’t even have a title but everybody knew he was the leader. So there was a sense, ''If you back down from this editorial, Deng Xiaoping will lose face.'' That argument played out all the way to the end when it was decided, rather than have this octogenarian lose face, it’s better to unleash the troops, send the tanks into Tiananmen Square, kill hundreds of people—because the alternate would be lost of face. I mean I’m simplifying a little bit, but in a sense that was where the battle lines were drawn internally but Zhao had thought, “We can back down, let me take the fall for this,” and the party wouldn’t allow that.

Question: Did he have a clear conception of what they were fighting for at Tiananmen?

Adi Ignatius: Initially we all called the protestors pro-democracy protestors—it was easy shorthand. There was a backlash I think in analysis of it; people say, “Well, it wasn’t about democracy; these kids didn’t know what they wanted, people were out there for various reasons.” I think that missies the point. Basically they were out there because they didn’t like the system—it’s not unlike the protest in the Iran right now. Do people want to overthrow the state? Do they know what they want as an alternative? Not necessarily. But they know they are not happy with the way this election is going—to me that’s essentially democracy. People are saying, “We want a better political system.”

So it was a little bit chaotic. People were talking about democracy. They were talking about fighting corruption. They were talking about some smaller concerns that they had. But I think Zhao did understand the somewhat mixed message. He thought there was a way to take a softer line to compromise and to essentially harness this energy for the good of China and not to view it as a threat to the state.

The turning point was when the hardliners wanted to bring in the army to clear the protesters and Zhao said, “I can’t do that.” And in the communist state you can have vigorous debate behind the scenes, but there's an idea of democratic centralism: once there is a decision everybody sort of lines up and supports it. But Zhao just said, “I can’t do that. I’m not going to be the general secretary who authorizes lethal force against this protest movement.”

At that point he was out—that was maybe 2 weeks before the Tiananmen massacre happened. But that was it for his career; the die was cast. The army was going to come in and it was just a question of when.

Question: How does this book clear up history surrounding the events at Tiananmen Square?

Adi Ignatius: I think that 20 years ago people all around the world were caught up in the idealism. It was one of the first things CNN was broadcasting daily into our homes—from Tiananmen Square, it really captured the imagination. But even overseas I think people forgot whether the crackdown eventually was justified, how it had gotten out of control, whether it had to become violent, if the state not functioning because of it.

I think the book makes it clear that this was an idealistic peaceful demonstration that could have been handled better and, more than that, what you realize from the book is that that the debate then is still the debate now. I mean, this is 20 years ago but essentially it’s the same China. Yes, you’ve had economic liberalization that’s been successful, but political reform has to follow in a healthy society—that was the debate then, and Zhao was a relative liberal in that debate. He lost. That’s still unresolved and it’s just not going to disappear. It’s going to bubble up from time to time. I actually think this book and Zhao’s argument will now become part of that discussion.

Question: What was Zhao like as a character?

Adi Ignatius: Zhao spent those last 16 years under house arrest, out of the public eye, and in many ways as a forgotten character in the wider world and even in China. It’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons. One, he was the true implementer of the kind of post-Mao economic innovations that we think of now—China as this economic juggernaut. Zhao started all that before he came to Beijing in a senior role when he was a leader in the Sichuan province and Guangdong province, just trying new capitalist style, market style innovations to get China out of the collectivist, inefficient, post-Maoist stagnation that they were in. He succeeded so well that he was brought to Beijing at, by Chinese standards, a very young age, and became Premier before he was Party Secretary.

Deng Xiaoping is credited with creating the blueprint for modern China, but Deng didn’t have details. Deng said, “I want a liberal economy. I want a booming economy. I want people to get rich. I don’t want any threat to the communist party but I’m willing to let people get rich.” And he took this and said, “Zhao, you figure that out.” So the details were up to Zhao, and more importantly so were these internal struggles—the government probably now but especially then was balanced between people who were farmers and people who were conservatives. So Zhao had to fight those struggles.

In any kind of economic liberalization, whether it was letting peasants sell extra grain to make money, taking controls off prices—in all these steps toward a market economy, Zhao had huge opposition and paid for it every step along the way. The fact that reform got started in this areas was due to very skillful infighting. Sometimes Deng would intercede and help them but sometimes Zhao was just out there fighting the fight. People should know that: this guy made a great contribution to the economic juggernaut that China is today.

Question: Clearly Zhao was progressive in terms of his economic agenda. What about politically and socially?

Adi Ignatius: Zhao believed in political reform to the extent that it would help develop the economy; I actually was the only Western journalist in the late ‘80s to meet with Bao Tong, his top political aide—he just didn’t give interviews and I had a high level delegation in from New York, I was the ''Wall Street Journal'' bureau chief then. We met with him because he was the guy who we heard was the most liberal thinker in terms of political reform.

We talked to him and he sounded very conservative. He said, “Well, you know, political reform is great if it helps boost the economy but for it’s own sake we don’t really see a value in that.” It was interesting, I later talked to a mutual friend; he knew Bao Tong and I knew him, and he said he’d gone to Bao Tong after that interview was published in The Wall Street Journal and wondered if he might get in trouble for speaking up to the Western press and Bao Tong told him, “No. It’s great. It made me sound really conservative.” That’s the game they had to play: if they were going to push the envelope they didn’t want to do it in such a way that it would alarm the hardliners who would then step in and crack down. So they were moving at a very gradual pace.

But I think, particularly later in his life under house arrest, during those years of thinking and reflecting, Zhao went further and realized that to get past the problems of corruption, to get society to a normal productive state, you had to have political reform and, again, that’s where he came down finally saying, ''What China needs is a Western parliamentary system. It can’t succeed if it remains a one party state the way it is now.''

Question: What was the interaction between top officials during this era?

Adi Ignatius: The other incredible thing about the book is it’s the first time any one has peeled back the curtain to show how these top officials, the politburo standing committee, interacted with one another, and it’s incredible. It’s terrifying in some ways. I mean, we knew that there was factionalism. We knew there were liberals and conservatives. We knew they didn’t agree on things. But Zhao really makes it clear not only did they openly disagree with each other but they were like school children at times.

Zhao’s chief rival was probably Premiere Li Peng who was really out there—declaring marshal law and being a force behind the crackdown. At a point when Li Peng was suspicious of Zhao, when Zhao will go out in public Lee Pong would tail him and jump out in front of photographers so they couldn’t take Zhao’s picture. It was high school behavior.

Deng Xiaoping was the supreme leader. He would make the ultimate decisions but he was like an emperor who didn’t really know necessarily what was going on. So the rival factions would rush to try to get to him first and spin events in their way and then he would make a pronouncement, oracle-like and everybody was supposed to line up.

Sometimes Zhao would get to him and say, “Look, things are fine. Don’t worry.” Sometimes Li Peng would get to him and say, “You know, the state is under threat. Our entire system is under threat. We have to crackdown.” So, this is no way to run a government. The person making the decision did not seem to have a lot of unbiased information at his fingertips from which to decide. It was very chaotic. People will use the term ''mafia like.'' That’s maybe a little rough but the idea of Deng as a godfather figure with his lieutenants running around executing this and that that they think is on his behalf and spinning events for him and then for him to make these emperor-like pronouncements, it's not entirely wrong.

Question: Why wasn't Zhao persecuted more heavily?

Adi Ignatius: I think that’s a good question. He hadn’t actually broken any laws, probably, even by Chinese standards, but, in earlier purges—certainly during Mao’s time—people who challenged the official line were treated far more harshly. I think they made a calculation that the crackdown in 1989 was so severe—it really plunged China into darkness for a few years before reforms and the economy started moving again—the Chinese government had to sense pretty quickly they had control over society, they had control over propaganda, and they did not need to fear Zhao. They could keep him under house arrest.

In his book it’s almost comical, certainly Kafkaesque, as he describes attempts to get out from time to time to play golf. At one point he wanted to play pool at the pool hall where the old party officials go and they said no. He said, “How can you say no?” They finally let him go but before he went they cleared the place of every single person. So Zhao went out to play pool with his friends and he's in this giant club all by himself, with the pool cue.

So they succeeded in making him a non-person and that’s what was important, without making him a martyr which is what might have happened if they jailed him or treated him more harshly. So, to be honest, in terms of what Beijing wanted to do—they basically wanted to erase his memory—they succeeded just fine the way they treated him. Until now that suddenly, out of nowhere, this memoir has come out where Zhao is speaking from the grave. When this news broke, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed piece with the headline ''Zhao Ziyang's Revenge'; he is having the last word on what happened back then.

Question: How have his children fared since the publication?

Adi Ignatius: Since the publication the Chinese government has tried to react calmly and so they’re not coming out denouncing this. There was once an indirect editorial that ran in some Hong Kong papers that was clearly officially approved, but it mostly criticized Western media response to the book rather than taking on any of the book itself, or Zhao himself, or the contents of the book.

I think they’re trying to not inflame things. The family has made it clear that the tapes are real, the book is real, and that they are behind the publication, but they are trying to lay low and the government has as far as I know not made life worse for them since the publication.

Question: Where is China going moving forward with respect to political and social reform?

Adi Ignatius: I think the political reform question is unresolved because there is a kind of bottled-up pressure. If the government can somehow handle it and finesse this unresolved question—great, it will continue forever. I doubt they can. You know, the movement 20 years ago was very unexpected. People marched because of the death of a communist party general secretary. You wouldn’t have predicted that. Yet suddenly you had many people in the street and not just in Beijing, but all across the country. It was truly a national movement.

You don’t know what might trigger something else like that but I think something will—not even necessarily mass unrest but just a movement for political freedom, for a kind of modernization of the political system to accommodate the modernization in the economy. I don’t think those yearnings go away.

The economic development has been so successful that most Chinese are not demanding political reform. They are not really thinking about it. But if the rising expectations that had been built into society because of the economic growth suddenly are dashed and people are really worried about whatever it is—a slowdown in growth, lost jobs, higher prices, corruption—that can feed into political discontent and at some point these issues have to be resolved. Hopefully, that can happen without a crises but the tighter the control on political freedom now, in my mind, the more its likely to erupt in crises when it does emerge.

Question: Do you see increased government transparency as preceding political reform?

Adi Ignatius: I'm not saying China hasn’t improved in 20 years. It has. There are more NGOs operating and there are some important things that are happening that are not controlled by the communist party now. There’s probably more transparency in the process.

20 years ago you had Deng Xiaoping, you had a generation of kind of revolutionary veterans who didn’t have official titles but essentially ran the country. That’s not a healthy situation. That’s not a transparent accountable government. So you have a more normal government structure now. It’s not particularly transparent. We don’t really know what happens behind the scenes but it has all improved.

Question: Is it possible for China to continue its economic surge without reform?

Adi Ignatius: That's a good question. The model so far—creating a great deal of economic freedom and very little political freedom—you have to look at it and say, “Hmmm. That seems to work.”

They have a long way to go. The Chinese economy, I would say, is partially reformed. To keep going they need to free up a lot of people to move around, to have freedom to do what they want, to employ themselves when they want, to take all kinds of risks, to enter aspects of the economy closed off to them.

There needs to be some kind of further reform, I don't know if that’s political or economic at this point. I just think you have a kind of a built in time bomb that if you don’t allow people to let off political steam, it builds up, and it could build up in a way that threatens stability. What the Chinese government says is, ''By clamping down we ensure stability, and stability allows the economy to grow.'' But I think that works up to a point, but if you keep people down you have essentially created instability—it’s just the question of when had how that will arrive.

Question: How is the book being received?

Adi Ignatius: This book cannot be sold in China. There’s no way. However, there is a Chinese language version that was printed in Hong Kong and we know that people from mainland China who visited Hong Kong are stuffing their suitcases with it before they go back. It sold out in the airports, but probably more importantly somebody scanned in a PDF version which is up on a file server and it looks like it’s being downloaded all over China. So the Chinese language version of this book is read by anybody who cares about it, so again it becomes part of the dialogue inside China.

Simon & Schuster was the publisher of the U.S. edition and controlled the foreign rights and they are actually thrilled. They probably wouldn’t say it publicly, so I have to say it for them, but nobody was going to buy the book in China, so the idea that it is actually getting out there is great even if it’s a PDF version. PDF books circulating is normally terrifying for a publisher in this case I think they’re pretty happy about it.

Question: What is happening in China in response to the recession?

Adi Ignatius: It’s funny; back in 1989, there were very few protests then, and any protest was a huge deal and the government have to confront it: do we crack down, can we make it go away, do we start arresting people immediately? They were rare events and they required a kind of dramatic response.

Now, there tens of thousands of protests across China all the time and they’ve probably accelerated during the recessionary period. They tend to be workers and farmers, primarily workers who have small scale, localized issues about factory conditions, about lay offs, things like that, and the government has managed to handle those. They realized “Okay, this is going to happen but that doesn’t fundamentally threaten the state.” I mean, it’s when the intellectuals, when the elite take to the streets—that then becomes a problem.

There is concern: China has a great stimulus package of its own that seems to be working. China has been hit—the exports are down 25%. It was a huge figure that represents a lot of money, that represents a lot of factory closures, although compared to hit the U.S. has taken, they seem to be surviving relatively well.

Recorded on: June 19, 2009