- Name of the book: The name "Prisoner of the State" is highly inappropriate. I do not doubt the fact that Zhao was a de facto prisoner. However, that is NOT what the book is about, as he spends a mere 20 pages (um... voice recordings) describing how he was unjustly treated. This book is a review about China's development post Mao up to June 4th, 1989 from Zhao's eyes. The Chinese name 改革歷程 (The evolution of reform) is much more appropriate.
- Lost in translation: The "Elders" were the major obstacle to Zhao's reform ideas. I don't think "Elders" captures the significance. 元老 is much better. A 元老 has achieved basically indestructible status due to his or her contributions to the party throughout his or her years. This means, in a twisted Chinese (Asian?) way, none of the wrongs should be mentioned (unless permitted) and only the rights should be celebrated.
- Economic reforms: a large part of the book is spent on Zhao's vision for the Chinese economy. What I found in the book is a great economic mind. Ex-ante, he was absolutely spot-on in how to run China's (then) untapped economy and unleash its powers through utilization of cheap labor and work exports and accumulate reserves to further transform the economy into higher value added industries. For a person who never finished high school, that's pretty good; Milton Friedman even called him "the greatest socialist economist" (is that a backhanded compliment?)
- Political reform: Despite what the foreign press and the foreword says, Zhao was not a advocate for parliamentary democracy when he was in power. He was a advocae for a more open and democratic Communist Party (i.e. within). Only years after his detainment did he arrived at the conclusion that Western parliamentary was the best available method. If he stayed in power, I doubt he would get to that - he did ask Deng to stay in power just to keep the opposing "elders" in check as he consolidated power and rose to prominance.
- Military: conspicuously missing from the book was any mention of the military (People Liberation Army, or PLA). Surely Zhao was aware that the military sided with the elders? But there was no mention of any generals or military heavyweights in the book.
I also think the book is solid evidence that Deng Xiaoping was behind the wheel of everything that happened in modern China. Yes, that includes June 4th. Regarding reforms, he may not have known exactly what to do, but he got the right people to do it (such as Zhao and his predecessor Hu Yaobang) and remained a buffer between economic reform and political conservatives.
Even though I've pointed out that this book is more about the economic and political struggle of China prior to June 4th 1989, I will take a stab. Had June 4th not happened, I think the economic reforms would have still been successful. In particular, Zhao points out that his idea of political reform at the time was more transparency within the party as well as introducing different voices into the party. Neither of which would truly hinder the development of the economy.
You can of course argue this the other way... that the success of the student demonstrations would have led to yet another bigger protest when the people do not get what they want (a de facto democracy, ala Thailand style!?)... and bloodshed was inevitable. I can't relive history...
... but I 100% judge what happened in Tiananmen Square: "That's Wrong".