Following World War II, Zhao was responsible for rural reform work in the Hebei-Shandong-Henan Border Region. During the Chinese Civil War (1946–1949), he served in his native province as the CCP's secretary of the Luoyang District. During October 1949–1965, he was assigned to Guangdong Province, holding a secretariat in the South China subbureau of the Central–South China Bureau. In mid-1965, he was promoted to the bureau level as the first secretary of Guangdong.
In October 1967, as a result of the ultraleftist Cultural Revolution, Zhao was denounced as a counterrevolutionary, a member of the landowning class, and an agent of PRC Chairman Liu Shaoqi, a rival of Mao Zedong. Thereafter, Zhao was exiled from public life, spending four years at forced labor in a factory until May 1971, when he was assigned to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as the party's secretary. In April 1972 he returned to Guangdong, resuming his former posts. In 1976 he went to Sichuan, where he assumed similar positions. His successful economic modernization of Sichuan soon captured Beijing's attention.
In 1980, Zhao became premier, a post he held until 1987, during which he frequently traveled abroad to promote the PRC's international image. In 1987 he became the general-secretary and the first vice chairman of the CCP Central Committee's Military Commission. On 19 May 1989, he visited with the student prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He begged them to depart, apologized for having arrived "too late," and warned the students that the state authorities were planning to take action against them. In June 1989, shortly after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was stripped of all his posts because of his support of the student demonstrators.
Zhao was then detained under house arrest in Beijing not far from the government offices where he once led China. During his long confinement, he became a powerful symbol for those who believed that the Chinese government should reassess its policies in the 3–4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Zhao died in Beijing on 17 January 2005, and nervous Chinese government officials strongly discouraged any public demonstrations or mourning to mark the occasion.
MacFarquhar, Roderick, ed. The Politics of China: The Eras of Mao and Deng. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.; Meisner, Maurice. Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic. New York: Free Press, 1999.; Shambaugh, David L. The Making of a Premier: Zhao Ziyang's Provincial Career. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.; Zhang Liang, comp. The Tiananmen Papers. Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.