If you are going to read two history of the People’s Republic of China, read Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary by Gao Wenqian and Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang , edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. These two books revolve around two Prime Ministers of the People’s Republic, Zhou Enlai (who was in the inner circle between 1945 and 1976) and Zhao Ziyang (who was in the inner circle between 1980 and 1989). As such, only four years separate the major political career of these two leaders.
More important, both these books rely on secret documents. Gao Wenqian was Zhou’s official biographer for the Communist Party, and smuggled out his notes to essentially rewrite his official biography. (The footnote section alone is fascinating, as it cites page after page of documents that only exists= in the Party’s central archives.) Likewise, Prisoner of the State was dictated by Zhao when he was under house arrest, and smuggled out of the country after his death.
Because retirements were never for real in the early People’s Republic, some of the characters are in both books. Deng Xiaoping was an overseas student in France with Zhou, and was instrumental in the rise and fall of Zhao. Likewise, Zhou’s wife Yingchao appears in both books, because of their adoption of Li Peng, the hardline chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee who was instrumental in creating the Tiananmen Massacre. While both Zhou and Zhao admired men like Deng Xiaoping, their views on others would be different. Zhao Ziyang viewed Li Xiannian as a snake in the grass, while he was trusted by Zhou Enlai. Upon Lin Biao‘s death, Xianian saw Zhou crying in his office. After attempting to console him by saying a traitor had been defeated, no matter what damage he caused, Zhou responded, “You don’t understand. It’s not that simple. You don’t understand.”
Last Perfect Revolutionary helps shed new light on the Lin Biao affair. The best analogy would be if, in 1945, Vice President Harry Truman’s plane crashed while on the way to Mexico, and the next day detailed notes for an assassination of President Roosevelt were found in his house. Or if, in early 1949, Beria died in a plane crash over Poland, and similar notes about the planned murder of Stalin were found. In most histories of China or the cultural revolution the sudden turn of events is shocking, with nothing to prepare for it. Propaganda after the fact accused the KMT and the Soviet Union of trying to mastermind a coup, and (either bewilderment, guilt, or the desire to increase the paranoia of Mao Zedong) neither the KMT nor the Soviet Union denied the charge. Last Perfect Revolutionary contains detailed chonricle of the last days of Lin Biao’s life, that contradicts earlier sources but makes sense of the events.
Likewise, Prisoner of the State sheds new light on events of the mid-1980s. It has been speculated, for instance, that Zhao Ziyang’s ouster was prompted by statements made to Gorbachev and others that tried to shift the blame for a crackdown on the protesters of Tiananmen. Zhao denies this, but is surprisingly critical of his own economic policies, which he faults for creating a crisis of confidence. Zhao ascribes similar feelings (an unconcern with his remarks to Gorbachev, but great anxiety of the economic crisis) to other senior leaders, as well. Likewise, while his verbal conflicts with Chen Yun (another hold-over from Zhou Enlai’s biography) were noted by Western observers, Zhao praises Chen as a forthright, honest, and valuable critic, while saving his disdain for Xianian and others.
If you only read one book of modern Chinese history, China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping covers both of the era of Zhou and the era of Zhao. However, the chance to read back-to-back, behind the scenes accounts of Party history is one not to be missed. Both Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary and Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang are highly recommended.