If leadership politics is a tough business everywhere, it is particularly so in China. With a few breaks for reason and benevolence, the country’s history has been marked by a succession of ruthless leaders and intense power struggles from the days of the First Emperor, 2,200 years ago. The coming of Communism kept the tradition going, with Mao in many ways reincarnating the persona of the dynastic founder whose word was law. With the Great Helmsman’s death in 1976, a page might have been thought to have been turned as Deng Xiaoping came out on top. Market-led economic reform was launched; a ‘Democracy Wall’ was allowed in Beijing; relations were established with the United States and the diminutive new patriarch was photographed wearing a ten-gallon hat in Texas.
In this apparently benign context, a highly competent, affable official from the provinces, Zhao Ziyang, emerged as Prime Minister from 1980 before moving in 1987 to the job that sits on top of the country’s Leninist hierarchy, General Secretary of the Communist Party. As his secretly compiled memoirs