Unlike many Party members active in the 1930s and 1940s who later became senior Chinese Leaders, Zhao joined the Party too late to have participated in the Long March of 1934–1935. He served in the People's Liberation Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent civil war, but his posts were largely administrative. Zhao's career was not especially notable before he emerged as a Party leader in Guangdong in the early 1950s.
Zhao was born Zhao Xiuye (simplified Chinese: 赵修业; traditional Chinese: 趙修業; pinyin: Zhào Xiūyè), but changed his given name to "Ziyang" while attending middle school in Wuhan. He was the son of a wealthy landlord in Hua County, Henan, who was later murdered by Communist Party officials during a land reform movement in the early 1940s. Zhao joined the Communist Youth League in 1932, and became a full member of the Party in 1938.
Because Zhao had risen to power through his work in the provinces, he never enjoyed strong connections among the Party leadership in Beijing. Because he had led the Communist Youth League in the 1950s, Zhao often relied on its former members for support, and Zhao's enemies accused him of promoting a "Communist Youth League faction" within the CCP. Among Beijing's Party elders, Chen Yun and Li Xiannian were notably critical of Zhao and his policies.
Zhao rose to prominence in Guangdong from 1951, initially following a ruthless ultra-leftist, Tao Zhu, who was notable for his heavy-handed efforts to force local peasants into living and working in "People's Communes". When Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) created an artificial famine, Mao publicly blamed the nation's food shortages on the greed of rich peasants, who were supposedly hiding China's huge surplus production from the government. Zhao's faith in Mao led him to take a leading role in a local campaign aimed at torturing peasants into revealing their imaginary food supplies. Through supporting the Great Leap Forward, Zhao was partially responsible for the millions of people who died from starvation and malnutrition in Guangdong between 1958 and 1961.
By 1965 Zhao was the Party secretary of Guangdong province, despite not being a member of the Communist Party Central Committee. He was forty-six at the time that he first became Party secretary, a notably young age to hold such a prestigious position. Because of his moderate political orientation, Zhao was attacked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). He was dismissed from all official positions in 1967, after which he was paraded through Guangzhou in a dunce cap and publicly denounced as "a stinking remnant of the landlord class".
Zhao's rehabilitation began in April 1971, when he and his family were woken in the middle of the night by someone banging on the door. Without much explanation, the Party chief of the factory that Zhao was working at informed Zhao that he was to go at once to Changsha, the provincial capital. The factory's only means of transport was a three-wheeled motorcycle, which was ready to take him.
Throughout 1972 Zhou Enlai directed Zhao's political rehabilitation. Zhao was appointed to the Central Committee, and in Inner Mongolia became the Revolutionary Committee Secretary and vice-chairman in March 1972. Zhao was elevated to the 10th Central Committee in August 1973, and returned to Guangdong as 1st CPC Secretary and Revolutionary Committee Chair in April 1974. He became Political Commissar of the Chengdu Military Region in December 1975.
Zhao was appointed Party Secretary of Sichuan in 1975, effectively the province's highest-ranking official. Earlier in the Cultural Revolution, Sichuan had been notable for the violent battles that rival organizations of local Red Guards had fought against each other. At the time, Sichuan was China's most populous province, but it had been economically devastated by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, whose collective policies had collapsed the province's agricultural production to levels not seen since the 1930s, despite a great increase in the province's population. The economic situation was so bad that citizens in Sichuan were reportedly selling their daughters for food. Soon after taking office, Zhao introduced a series of successful market-oriented reforms, leading to an increase in industrial production by 81% and agricultural output by 25% within three years. Zhao's reforms made him popular in Sichuan, where the local people created a saying: "yao chi liang, zhao Ziyang". (This saying is a pun on Zhao's name, which can be loosely translated as: "if you want to eat, look for Ziyang.")
After 1978 Zhao's policies were replicated in Anhui, with similar success. In 1980, after serving under Hua Guofeng as vice-premier for six months, Zhao replaced Hua as Premier of the State Council with a mandate to introduce his rural reforms across China. Between 1980 and 1984, China's agricultural production rose by 50%.
While Zhao focused on economic reforms during the early 1980s, his superior, Hu Yaobang, promoted a number of political reforms. In the late 1980s Hu and Zhao collaborated to promote a series of large-scale political reforms with vaguely defined goals. The political reforms of Hu and Zhao included proposals to have candidates directly elected to the Politburo, more elections with more than one candidate, more government transparency, more consultation with the public on policy, and increased personal responsibility directed to officials for their mistakes.
Western observers generally view the year that Zhao served as general secretary as the most open in the history of the People's Republic of China. Many limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of press were relaxed, allowing intellectuals to freely express themselves, and to propose "improvements" for the country. Zhao boldly introduced the stock market in China and vigorously promoted futures trading there. In 1984, under the support of Zhao Ziyang, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou became experimental cities of joint-stock system,some companies issued stock only within own company workers. In November 1985, the first share-issuing enterprise was established in Shanghai and issued 10,000 shares of 50 RMB par value stock publicly, attracted many investors' interest. Zhao Ziyang hosted a financial meeting on 2 August 1986, he demanded that the joint stock system should be carried out nationwide in the following year.
Zhao lived for fifteen years under house arrest, accompanied by his wife. The hutong in which Zhao lived had once belonged to a hairdresser of the Qing Dynasty Empress Dowager, Cixi. Before his death in 1987 Hu Yaobang had also lived in the house. It was supplied by the Beijing government and is located in central Beijing, close to Zhongnanhai. Despite Zhao's house arrest, no formal charges were ever laid against him, and he was never expelled from the Communist Party. After his arrest, Deng and his successors continued to believe that Zhao and his subordinates had worked secretly to organize the nationwide protests, and worried that his death might trigger protests similar to the protests sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang.
The second half of 1988 saw the increasing deterioration of Zhao's political support. Zhao found himself in multi-front turf battles with the Party elders, who grew increasingly dissatisfied with Zhao's hands-off approach to ideological matters. The conservative faction in the politburo, led by Premier Li Peng and Vice-premier Yao Yilin, were constantly at odds with Zhao in economic and fiscal policy making. Zhao was under growing pressure to combat runaway corruption by rank-and-file officials and their family members. In the beginning of 1989, it was evident that Zhao was faced with an increasingly difficult uphill battle, and he may have seen that he was fighting for his own political survival. If Zhao was unable to turn things around rapidly, a showdown with the Party conservatives would be all but inevitable. The student protests triggered by the sudden death of former CPC general secretary Hu Yaobang, widely admired as a reform-minded leader, created a crisis in which Zhao was forced into a confrontation with his political enemies.
Prisoner of the State contained minor historical errors, which commenters noted may reflect how out of touch China's Leaders are with Chinese society. Although the Beijing populace did spontaneously attempt to block Chinese troops' entrance into Beijing, Zhao's assertion that "groups of old ladies and children slept in the roads" was not correct. Zhao noted that the Astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (the Chinese government's most wanted dissident following the Tiananmen Protests) was out of the country in 1989 and publicly critical of Deng Xiaoping, when in fact Fang was living just outside Beijing and deliberately kept silent about politics during the 1989 protests.
Zhao remained under tight supervision and was allowed to leave his courtyard compound or receive visitors only with permission from the highest echelons of the Party. There were occasional reports of him attending the funeral of a dead comrade, visiting other parts of China or playing golf at Beijing courses, but the government rather successfully kept him hidden from news reports and history books. Over that period, only a few snapshots of a gray-haired Zhao leaked out to the media. On at least two occasions Zhao wrote letters, addressed to the Chinese government, in which he put forward the case for a reassessment of the Tiananmen Massacre. One of those letters appeared on the eve of the Communist Party's 15th National Congress. The other came during a 1998 visit to China by U.S. President Bill Clinton. Neither was ever published in mainland China.
Zhao's published autobiography is based on approximately thirty cassette tapes which Zhao secretly recorded between 1999 and 2000. The material in his biography was largely consistent with the information from the "Tiananmen Papers", an unauthorized collection of Chinese government documents published in 2001. The book was also consistent with material from "Captive Conversations", a record of conversations between Zhao and his friend Zong Fengming, which was published only in Chinese. According to Zhao's friend and former co-worker, Du Daozheng, Zhao only recorded the tapes after being convinced by his friends to do so.
In February 2004, Zhao had a pneumonia attack that led to a pulmonary failure and was hospitalized for three weeks. Zhao was hospitalized again with pneumonia on 5 December 2004. Reports of his death were officially denied in early January 2005. Later, on 15 January, he was reported to be in a coma after multiple strokes. According to Xinhua, Vice President Zeng Qinghong represented the party's central leadership to visit Zhao at the hospital. Zhao died on 17 January in a Beijing hospital at 07:01, at the age of 85. He was survived by his second wife, Liang Boqi, and five children (a daughter and four sons).
On 29 January 2005 the government held a funeral ceremony for him at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, a place reserved for revolutionary heroes and high government officials, that was attended by some 2,000 mourners, who were pre-approved to attend. Several dissidents, including Zhao's secretary Bao Tong and Tiananmen Mothers leader Ding Zilin, were kept under house arrest and therefore could not attend. Xinhua reported that the most senior official to attend the funeral was Jia Qinglin, fourth in the party hierarchy, and other officials who attended included He Guoqiang, Wang Gang and Hua Jianmin. Mourners were forbidden to bring flowers or to inscribe their own messages on the government-issued flowers. There was no eulogy at the ceremony because the government and Zhao's family could not agree on its content: while the government wanted to say he made mistakes, his family refused to accept he did anything wrong. On the day of his funeral, state television mentioned Zhao's death for the first time. Xinhua issued a short article on the funerary arrangements, acknowledging Zhao's "contributions to the party and to the people", but said he made "serious mistakes" during the 1989 "political disturbance". According to Du Daozheng, who wrote the foreword to the Chinese edition of Zhao's memoirs, the use of the term "serious mistakes" instead of the former verdict of supporting a "counter-revolutionary riot" represented a backing down by the Party. After the ceremony, Zhao was cremated. His ashes were taken by his family to his Beijing home, since the government had denied him a place at Babaoshan.
As of 2009 his memoir was being sold (in both Chinese and English) in Hong Kong but not in mainland China, though a Microsoft Word document containing the memoir's entire Chinese-language text became available on the Internet and was downloaded widely throughout mainland China.
In Hong Kong, 10,000–15,000 people attended the candlelight vigil in remembrance of Zhao. Mainlanders such as Chen Juoyi said that it was illegal for Hong Kong legislators to join any farewell ceremony, stating "...under the 'one country, two systems' a Hong Kong legislator cannot care anything about mainland China." The statement caused a political storm in Hong Kong that continued for three days after his speech. Szeto Wah, the chairman of The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, said that it was not right for the Communists to suppress the memorial ceremony. The twenty-four pan-democrat legislators went against the President of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong Rita Fan, who insisted that security be tightened at Tiananmen Square and at Zhao's house, and that the authorities try to prevent any public displays of grief. Similar memorials were held around the world, notably in New York City and Washington, DC where American government officials and exiled political dissidents attended. In the West, Zhao was editorialized as a courageous reformer and a political martyr.