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Adi Ignatius is Editor in Chief of the "Harvard Business Review". Previously, he served as Executive Editor of "Time" and was responsible for the magazine's business and international coverage. Before[…]

There was serious infighting among top Communist Party officials.

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.

Recorded on: June 19, 2009