On July 15th news of the death of one of China’s earliest reformers was made public. Wan Li, 98, former Vice Premier, former Chairman of the People’s Congress and ally of reformist leaders such as former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang and former Premier Zhao Ziyang, was the last of the so-called ‘Eight Immortals’. His legacy is mixed, but his accomplishments should be celebrated.

The ‘Eight Immortals’ were the group of retired Communist Party officials with revolutionary credentials who controlled the government from behind the scenes throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He played a pivotal part in dismantling the terribly inefficient agrarian communes, giving farmers control over their produce, and allowing them to pursue profit.

Deng Xiaoping himself praised Wan Li for his insightful economic policy and his embrace of capitalist economics did not undermine his revolutionary standing, because his loyalty to the Party was never in doubt. However, unlike Deng, Wan believed firmly that economic reform and political reform had to go hand in hand and this made him a target during the 1989 crackdown, culminating in the Tiananmen massacre of June 4th of that year.

Wan Li. Photo: Chinese Radio & TV.

Wan Li had to walk a careful line after 1989, since it was clear that Zhao Ziyang had already fallen into disgrace. He retired gracefully and remained in the background, but he refused to speak out in favor of the military ‘solution’ to the democracy ‘problem’, as Jiang Zemin urged him to do in 1989. Wan continued to give speeches and write articles extolling the necessity of a democratic decision-making process in the party and giving the people their constitutional rights, though after 1989 he was careful never to criticize or support the June 4th massacre.

Excerpts from these speeches and articles started to circulate again on Chinese social media after news of Wan’s death spread, such as this one from July 1987: “Without democracy, we cannot talk about the real development of science. Without science, there is no way to establish true democracy…Without democratization, we cannot open our minds and words; we cannot respect knowledge, respect talent, respect the creative wisdom of people, or respect experience, so there will be no science. […] We should welcome advice, stop silencing the public, and implement freedom of speech as granted by the constitution.”

I got a WeChat message from a friend who said that when he quoted Wan Li without attribution, the post was censored, but when he placed it again with the attribution, it stayed online. He observed dryly: “Immortal wisdom without mentioning the immortal wise man is… very mortal on the Chinese Internet.”


Alexander Zwagerman

Alexander is a lecturer at the Arnhem Business School in the Netherlands and a fellow of the Sima Qian Foundation, advising governments and businesses about how the rise of China affects the global economy. With over ten years of work experience in China, he has written extensively about Chinese business and how free market solutions would solve many of China's problems. He has published books and articles in Dutch and English. On Press Freedom Day 2016 a Dutch collection of his essays was published by Pharos publishers and the proceeds were donated to HKFP.