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.

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