VIEW: Remembering and forgetting Zhao Ziyang —Orville Schell
Zhao experimented with everything from the de-collectivisation of agriculture and separation of the Party from business to laws guaranteeing the rights of journalists and greater openness towards 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 travelling abroad, as well as the first to hold an open press conference
So, at last former Chinese premier and Communist Party secretary general Zhao Ziyang 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 an 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 proscriptions for behaviour by a high official.
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 liberalisation” that his reform efforts allowed to leak through China’s once hermetic seal.
Chinese have long since 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 (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.
It was, of course, the death of former Party chief Hu Yaobang, 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 on 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 beside the 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-collectivisation of agriculture and separation of the Party from business to laws guaranteeing the rights of journalists and greater openness towards 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 travelling abroad, as well as the first to hold an open press conference.
Although Zhao was no visionary, no Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa, and not even anti-communist, his agenda in the mid-1980s embraced the economy, politics, culture, media, and society, and it led to one of the most open and intellectually rich periods of Chinese history. It was a tragic paradox that the political movement that so peacefully swept China in 1989 ended up arresting the process of broad-based, evolutionary reform to which Zhao consecrated his life. So chastened by the trauma of June 4 was the Party leadership that, for several years afterwards, it was unclear if any reform would survive. Then, in 1992, Deng Xiaoping set in motion one of the most rapid and total marketisations of a society in history, catalysing China’s spectacular rise as an economic superpower.
Zhao Ziyang’s death reminds us not only of how unjustly he was treated, but of how lopsided China’s reforms have been. For China’s “miracle” to truly become miraculous, Party leaders could do worse than study the record of a man whose legacy they now seem eager to push into oblivion. —DT-PS
Orville Schell, the author of many acclaimed books on China, is a dean at the University of California at Berkeley