The son of a wealthy Henan province landlord, he joined the Communist Youth League in 1932 and worked underground as a CPC official during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). He rose to prominence in the party in Guangdong from 1951. By the 1960s he was the Party secretary of Guangdong province.
As a supporter of the reforms of Liu Shaoqi, he was dismissed as Guangdong party leader during the Cultural Revolution, paraded through Guangzhou in a dunce's cap, and in 1971 he was assigned to work in Inner Mongolia.
He was rehabilitated by Zhou Enlai in 1973 and sent to China's largest province, Sichuan, as first party secretary in 1975. Here he introduced radical and successful market-oriented rural reforms, which led to a rapid increase in output. He was a member of the Communist Party Central Committee from 1973. Deng Xiaoping had him inducted into the Politburo as an alternate member in 1977 and as a full member in 1979. He joined the Politburo Standing Committee in 1982.
After six months as Vice-Premier, Zhao was appointed Premier in 1980 and assumed, in addition, the post of CPC General Secretary in January 1987.
Named General Secretary of the party in 1987, he persisted in advocating economic reforms and an open foreign policy. His economic reforms were criticized for causing inflation. Li Peng succeeded Zhao as Premier in 1987.
The tragic events of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 sealed his fate and rendered any possibility of democractic movement in China useless. When China's communist leaders Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, Li Peng, Hu Qili were finalizing their plans to declare martial law and crush the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, Zhao, then general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, waded into the students and spoke to them and pleaded with them to abandon their vigil before it was too late.
In the power struggle that ensued, Zhao was stripped of all his positions. What motivated Zhao remains, even today, a topic of debate by many. Some say he went into the square hoping a conciliatory gesture would gain him leverage against hard-liners like Premier Li Peng. After the massacre, Zhao was placed under house arrest. He remains under tight supervision even to this day.
Zhao called political reform "the biggest test facing socialism." He believed economic progress was inextricably linked to democratization. As early as 1986, Zhao became the first high-ranking Chinese leader to call for change, by offering a choice of election candidates from the village level all the way up to membership in the Central Committee. His economic policies were, for their time and place, similarly progressive. He developed "preliminary stage theory," a course for transforming the socialist system that set the stage for much of the prosperity China enjoys today.
In the 1980s, Zhao was branded by many as a revisionist of Marxism, He advocated government transparancy and a national dialogue that included ordinary citizens in the policymaking process, which made him popular with the masses. In Sichuan, where Zhao implemented economic restructuring in the 1970s, there was a saying: "yao chi liang, Zhao Ziyang." The wordplay on his name, loosely translated, means "if you want to eat, seek Ziyang."
See also: Politics of China, History of the People's Republic of China
|General Secretary of the Communist Party of China||Succeeded by:|
|Premier of the PRC