The conditions under which Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) lived at the time of his death, in utter isolation from Chinese society due to an illegally imposed 16-year house arrest, shames both Chinese justice and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Zhao's persecution was the persecution of a leader who dedicated himself for more than a decade to groundbreaking efforts that became the foundations of China's economic reform. In the late 1970s, peasants had long since lost their rights to own their land, owing to collectivization and the establishment of the People's Commune. It is a right they have never regained. Zhao, however, was the first to advocate giving autonomy back to the peasants and so initiated the first pilot tests to abolish the People's Commune.
Chinese industry had been transformed into subsidiaries of government through nationalization and central planning. Zhao was the first to propose "expanded autonomy for Chinese enterprises" and "restoration of a healthy relationship between government and industry." Expanded autonomy for enterprises and the peasantry were critical first steps whose success led eventually to full-blown economic reform.
These were among the many incremental victories Zhao won to help China's people break out of the suffocating stagnation of Maoist socialism. As China's premier, Zhao implemented 10 years of economic reforms that brought steady progress in which the people, especially the peasantry, enjoyed tangible improvements.
But Zhao was also the only CCP leader to propose a political reform package to tackle China's system of one-party rule. The party's unchallenged monopoly on political power systematically ensured that every mistake it made -- such as the dreadful decade of the Cultural Revolution -- turned into a prolonged nationwide crisis.
For genuine and long-term stability, Zhao proposed reforms that ultimately aimed at the legalization and systemization of democracy. He wished to establish the kind of democratic politics that could sup-port and nurture a healthy market economy. Although the short-term practical objectives of Zhao's political reforms were limited by the circumstances in which they were proposed, the measures were all aimed at containing CCP power and represented a concrete step toward returning, peacefully, power to China's people. Zhao's package -- a sharp break with Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) totalitarianism -- was approved by the 13th Party Congress, officially the highest authority within the CCP.
During his 20 months as general secretary, Zhao created a culture in which the Politburo refrained from interfering in the courts, and he halted its attempts to control literature and the arts. He abolished the policy of enterprises being run by party organizations and the system by which fa ren ("legal representatives") were the core of enterprises.
Unfortunately, Zhao's reforms were terminated upon his fall from power. The dreadful result was the indiscriminate denial of civil rights and the principles of democracy, and the rise of what today's leaders call "socialism with Chinese characteristics" -- a bitter euphemism for unchecked party and government power entwined with commercial interests.
Zhao's fate is also a chilling reminder of other injustices that are on the consciences of those now in power. The only reason for Zhao's continued ill treatment was his opposition to the violent repression of the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. It should have been his decision to make as general secretary, but things were not as they should have been.