Tue, Feb 01, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Zhao's death shakes Beijing's rule

Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) has long been a taboo name to many in China. The once premier and Communist Party chief was ousted in 1989 for opposing the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest. As a result of his decision to oppose the party line, Zhao has been dubbed the "symbol of Chinese democratic reform." His funeral was tightly controlled, as police checked the identities and denied entry to anyone not on an officially-approved guest list. Authorities fear Zhao's death might spark the rise of the democratic movement once again.

In the light of its repressive tactics, the regime is obviously still fearful of democracy and freedom. Many old friends of Zhao's were unable to pay their final respects to him and offer condolences to his family members. Only a handful of the powerful in government could communicate with Zhao's family, while members of the public eager to pay their respects were savagely beaten by police.

Although Jia Qinglin (賈慶林), chairman of the People's Political Consultative Conference, attended the funeral and represented the Chinese government in expressing condolences, Zhao is still defined by the government as a comrade who made a grave mistake amid the political upheavals of the summer of 1989.

Beijing's reluctance to rehabilitate Zhao's reputation shows that although China is adopting a liberal approach in economic development, it remains an authoritarian regime and is ignorant of the concepts of democracy and human rights. China's leadership will not ignore any force that could possibly challenge the rule of the Communist Party. Beijing's animosity toward the Falun Gong -- the so-called "evil cult" -- is the result of its own instability, and in the face of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. But democratic change, embodied by Zhao, is certainly a threat.

This side of the Taiwan Strait is quite familiar with China's psychological responses to moves toward reform. Taiwan has seen the 228 Incident, the Sun Li-jen (孫立人) and Lei Chen (雷震) cases, and the Kaohsiung Incident -- all examples of injustice that have taken place here. These injustices were covered up by the former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime.

It may be that the governments responsible for these types of injustices feel uneasy, but under an authoritarian regime, the truth rarely emerges. But when a dictator loses power or dies, these injustices spring up like seeds after spring rain, and the heavier the force that presses down on them, the stronger they will push upward. The revelation of past injustices here has left indelible scars on the record of the Chiang family's rule.

China's head-in-the-sand approach towards Zhao's political record is an indication of its willingness to deny reality, and of the gulf that separates it from the values that characterize civilized nations. Because of what Zhao represents, his passing could serve as a platform on which the Chinese government could show to its people and the international community that it is capable of facing up to historical errors, and that it is willing to correct past mistakes. Beijing has missed this opportunity.

Zhao was not treated fairly. This was a matter of regret for him personally, and also a matter of regret for the Chinese people and for their current leaders.

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