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02/01/2006

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Date Posted: 14:41 17/01/2005



Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005)

Reformist leader passes away at the age of 85



IN 1992, with economic reforms floundering under the unspectacular new leadership of General Secretary Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, the elderly patriarch Deng Xiaoping came out with an audacious new plan to engineer the departure of both of them. This, he believed, would also enable the rehabilitation of Zhao Ziyang, who would take a new position as the head of the China People's Political Consultative Congress.

The plan, however, would have required Zhao to make a volte face. He would have had to accept the official line on the counter-revolutionary 'turmoil' that broke out in 1989. He would have had to follow the route taken by his former colleague, Wen Jiabao, who was with Zhao when he made his fateful, tearful visit to the students on the night of May 19, but swiftly recovered his standing after making a full self-criticism.

Whether Zhao would have agreed to Deng's proposals is a moot point. Crafty politicking by Jiang Zemin's chief aide, Zeng Qinghong, resting on a number of trumped-up charges involving State President Yang Shangkun, meant that the plan was quickly thwarted.

While Xinhua news agency has, up to now, published only two lines on the death of one of China's most intriguing post-Mao political figures, the foreign press has been indulging itself thoroughly, describing the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party as the 'Tiananmen hero' (The London Times) and even the 'prisoner of conscience' (Time). Reports have insisted on Zhao's status as national folk hero, saying that Zhao remained steadfast in his later years, refusing even to countenance the idea that the 1989 crackdown was a necessary evil in the interests of social stability.

The New York Times has managed to describe more of the complexities in the story, including the fact that Zhao's power and influence was already on the wane when he chose to gamble on the strength of the 1989 protests, particularly during the visit of Soviet President Gorbachev. The conflict in the Party had been intensifying for years, and hardliners - including Li Peng - were becoming more vociferous in their opposition to the fast-track political and economic reform promoted by Zhao and his predecessor, Hu Yaobang.


Zhao speaking at Tian'anmen. On the right stands Wen Jiabao.

Zhao is characterized as the ultimate pragmatist, and might have been amenable to the approach from Deng. One might speculate that his position on Tian'anmen only hardened when it became apparent, by the mid-1990s, that rehabilitation was impossible and that both Jiang Zemin and Li Peng had fully consolidated power.

And so, what of Zhao's legacy? A number of reports suggest that the economic reform programme commonly described as one of the main achievements of the Deng era should in fact be ascribed to Zhao. But we should always remember the perils of moving too fast, especially in a vast, inchoate Party apparatus where inertia tends to be the default setting. Some believe that political reform was set back by a decade as a result of Zhao's impatience.

There are reports that a senior leader of the Chinese Communist Party has already visited Zhao Ziyang's remains to pay his respects. Could it have been his former right-hand man, Premier Wen Jiabao, the latest Great White Hope among China's reformers? An inherently cautious man, Wen is unlikely to repeat the mistakes made by his old comrade. Still, he will mourn, and Hu Jintao will mourn, and with a press ban still in place, it appears that the mourning will remain in secret.


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