Tiananmen Square — 22 years on

I have seen the above photo a thousand times, but had never realized that the dazed-looking aide behind Zhao Ziyang is Wen Jiabao, now China’s prime minister.

To recap, the photo was taken after midnight on May 19, 1989 when then Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang visited the students on hunger strike on Tiananmen Square. With tears in his eyes, Zhao told them, “I came too late,” in a touching moment that was filmed and aired on Chinese television. Caught amidst this chain of events was Zhao’s young aide, Wen Jiabao, then director of the Central Committee General Office. As he was responsible for Zhao’s transportation to the square, Wen went alongside. Although it was unclear where his sympathies lay, it is a miracle that Wen’s career survived Tiananmen and close association with Zhao.

It is now clear that Zhao made this nocturnal visit after the Chinese Politburo had decided to declare martial law and send in the tanks against Zhao’s wishes. Although Zhao would not be removed from his position until the next month, he would be marginalized from the party’s decision-making process after that night. In his memoirs, he wrote, he “talked to Wen Jiabao to suggest a Politburo meeting” in late May of 1989. “Wen Jiabao replied that, in fact, the Central Committee General Office had been brushed aside as well. He said that if I really wanted to call a meeting, the General Office would send out the notice, but he believed that the consequences would not be good and hoped I would carefully reconsider.” It was an advice very well in-tune with Wen’s lifetime of caution and discretion.

The Tiananmen Visit would be Zhao Ziyang’s last public appearance. The next month, he would be purged from the party days later for “grave insubordination” and lived under house arrest in Beijing until his death in January 2005. It is unclear what Zhao thought of his aide, who would subsequently make a meteoric rise to the top-echelons of the Chinese leadership, but Wen’s mere seven-line cameo in Zhao’s memoirs suggests that the late leader didn’t care much about his aide back in 1989.

Zhao Ziyang in Tiananmen


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the bloody suppression of the protesters in the Tiananmen Square. The march for democracy was met with a stony opposition from the elders of the Chinese communist party but its general secretary Zhao Ziyang was not among this group of ultra-hardliners.

Urging dialogue with the students, he futilely argued against martial law in the country home of Chairman Deng Xiaoping. So, at near midnight on May 19th, as hard-liners were finalizing their plans to crush the protests — which had swelled to include more than a million demonstrators in the preceding 48 hours, Zhao and his hardliner rival Li Peng walked out of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The hardliners had won, but the students thought the otherwise when Zhao appeared in front of them. They thought the government had backed down and that they had won. But Zhao had a different message. Stooping with fatigue, and with tears in his eyes, he walked into the throngs of students and spoke to student leaders through a bullhorn.”We have come too late,” he said, urging students to leave the square, to “treasure their lives”, to end their hunger strike, to help calm things down. Few heeded his words. Few hours later, the martial law was declared and troops all over the country were summoned to Peking. However, it was not until early June that the tanks and troops were sent in too crush the Tiananmen protests.

When tanks rolled by, Zhao was already under house arrest. The impromptu midnight foray was Zhao’s last public appearance. Subsequent snapshots that were leaked out over the years showed the gradual aging of the moderate man whose economic policies helped create the modern China; yet, he remained under house arrest until his death in 2005, silenced but never forgotten. As the Gorberchev China never had, Zhao almost had the last laugh–not only does the modern China operate as he envisioned in the 80s, but he also managed to keep a secret memoirs which vindicated his memory during his house-arrest. This memoirs (see TIME for how exactly he kept them) were released last week under the title, “Prisoner of the State: the Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang“. For China’s leaders, Zhao has proved to be as dangerous in death as he was in life.