Tue, Jan 25, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Remembering and forgetting Zhao Ziyang

China's current leadership is all too ready to consign the reformer to the trashbin of history. But they would do well to learn from his legacy -- particularly if China's `miracle' is to be anything other than economic

By Orville Schell

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

So, at last former Chinese premier and Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) has died. But the political agenda that he espoused while in office passed away long ago, on May 19, 1989, when he appeared in Tiananmen Square just before dawn to beg tearfully for the forgiveness of protesters.

"I am very sorry," he said to startled onlookers. "I have come too late." After that, he existed more as a historical chimera than as a real person.

When his bizarre and unscheduled appearance in the square was broadcast on Central Chinese Television the next morning -- during one of the last days of uncensored media coverage -- people across China were stunned by this fleeting moment of all-too-human, official anguish. After all, party leaders rarely evince their personal feelings in public, much less transgress the party line as brazenly as Zhao did. Such individualism fit neither Leninist nor traditional Chinese prescriptions for behavior by a high official.

Memory Hole

As the crackdown following those heady weeks of free expression and assembly came to its apocalyptic end on the night of June 3-4, Zhao vanished, sucked down the Party's memory hole into which so many other leaders have vanished since China's "socialist liberation." To the discredit of the democratic world, hardly any head of state remonstrated on Zhao's behalf, minimally demanding that some accounting be made for his illegal and immoral incarceration. Instead, Zhao was allowed to remain in suspended animation, under house arrest, conveniently forgotten like some cryogenically frozen celebrity with no hope of resurrection.

Zhao was not killed, but allowed to live in an old Beijing courtyard house with his family. He was let out from time to time, but under guard like a zoo animal, to go to some spa or to play solitary holes of golf, one of the many manifestations of "bourgeois liberalization" that his reform efforts allowed to leak through China's once hermetic seal.

Chinese have long used the deaths of defrocked leaders as occasions to let out sentiments that can find no expression through the normal political process. During the winter of 1976, when premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) -- who was viewed as a relative liberal in the Maoist hierarchy -- died, tens of thousands of people spontaneously flooded Tiananmen Square, giving the party a tremendous fright.

Historical Echoes

It was, of course, the death of former party chief Hu Yaobang(胡耀邦), a liberal like Zhao, which set off the protests in 1989. Whether Zhao's supporters will express themselves in a similar fashion is uncertain. The events of 1989 remain so sensitive, and Tiananmen Square so securely guarded, that it is hard to imagine a protest happening there soon.

At the same time, China seems so drugged by business nowadays that it is hard to imagine many people marching for a cause that would do nothing for their bottom line. It's almost as if the Communist Party had turned Marx on his head, replacing religion with profit as the new "opium of the masses." Few outside of the lumpen classes of unemployed workers and dispossessed peasants seem to have any gusto for political protest.

By contrast, Zhao embodied a chapter in Chinese history when to be a reformer meant to take on not only the economy, but every aspect of life. Before becoming premier and party chief, he experimented with everything from the de-collectivization of agriculture and separation of the Party from business to laws guaranteeing the rights of journalists and greater openness toward the outside world for ordinary people. He was even the first Chinese leader to wear a suit and tie rather than a Mao habit when traveling abroad, as well as the first to hold an open press conference.

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