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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 01:27 GMT
China's ghost at the feast

By Tim Luard
BBC News

Zhao Ziyang was the man who ran China for much of its first decade of economic reforms, yet spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest, far away from the public eye.

Zhao Ziyang, 19 May 1989, addressing the students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Zhao has been gagged since his appeal to the Tiananmen protesters

He had not been seen in public since he tearfully appealed to students to leave Tiananmen Square soon before the announcement of martial law in 1989.

Those who replaced him have kept him out of power, out of sight, even out of the history books - but they could not stop him dying.

The 85-year-old former prime minister and Communist Party secretary general was known to be in "extremely poor health" in the months before his death.

If history is anything to go by, the death of a leader seen to have been wronged could spark protests, threatening the stability and prosperity which the party counts on to keep it in power.

The 15th anniversary of the military suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen protests raised tensions and revived memories of the silver-haired, bespectacled party chief who was sacked for siding with the students.

He will always remain a tragic figure in Chinese history
Li Cheng, Hamilton College, New York

When asked what they thought of Zhao Ziyang on the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen, most people in mainland China declined to answer, and not one was willing to be quoted by name.

"This particular issue is the most sensitive and dangerous there is - and the most closely guarded by the government," said one man.

Today's leaders are "constantly worried about Mr Zhao and determined to erase his name from the hearts and minds of the people", according to his former chief of staff, Bao Tong, who was jailed for seven years for opposing the massacre.

"Their purpose is none other than to prevent 1.4 billion people from advancing toward a society of modernity, democracy and law", said Mr Bao in a written statement seen by the BBC News website.

Political freeze

China's current leaders have carried on with Zhao's capitalist-style economic reforms, but his tentative moves towards political change have remained frozen.

The current regime is all too aware that Zhao and his legacy still cast a big shadow, said Wu Guoguang, who once worked as Zhao's speechwriter and now teaches politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"He sacrificed power for principle. But the guys in Beijing today don't know what principle is. They only know power."

15 April - Reformist leader Hu Yaobang dies
22 April - Hu's memorial service, thousands call for faster reforms
13 May - Students begin hunger strike as power struggle grips Communist party
15 May - Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visits China
19 May - Zhao Ziyang makes tearful appeal to students to leave
20 May - Martial law declared in Beijing
3-4 June - Security forces clear the square, killing hundreds

Zhao has been compared to upright officials in imperial China, who, rather than carry out policies they knew to be wrong, accepted years of banishment by the emperor, becoming popular heroes after their death.

In refusing to co-operate with the military crackdown, Zhao was influenced less by Confucian ideals than by simple humanitarianism, said Professor Wu.

"But unlike [former leader] Deng Xiaoping in the Cultural Revolution, he never agreed to demands for a self-criticism or made any other concessions to try to win back power.

"When China is free, people will remember Zhao more than Deng," Professor Wu said.

'True man'

The event that set off the protests in 1989 was the death of Zhao's predecessor as Communist Party chief, Hu Yaobang, another reformist initially picked by Deng to succeed him as paramount leader but later rejected as too liberal.

"A true man has died. False men are still living," said the first student posters.

Millions of unemployed workers and farmers who have suffered from current policies would like to use "any opportunity" to express their discontent, but may not have the chance after Mr Zhao's death because of careful precautions by the authorities, said Wu Guoguang.

"Officials are prepared for the worst. And they are now more skilled at controlling the people," he said.

But whether Zhao really retains either influence or popularity is open to question.

"During all those years he's been locked away, he hasn't changed. He doesn't even know what's been happening outside," said one Chinese woman, a teacher, before his death.

He remains a symbol of the opportunity lost at that time for bold political reform
Andrew Nathan, co-editor, Tiananmen Papers

Zhao and the demonstrators were carried away by emotion, she said.

"If there had been no crackdown the government would have collapsed, resulting in chaos."

'Tragic figure'

Many who are enjoying the fruits of China's economic success are likely to agree.

Zhao's major weaknesses were that he had no political network and no idea how to handle the protests, according to Li Cheng, a China specialist at Hamilton College in New York State.

"One cannot call Zhao a Tiananmen hero. As a matter of fact, in the early weeks of the crisis he was a target of the student movement."

Interviewed before Zhao's death, Li Cheng said his legacy was likely to be problematic.

"No matter when he dies, those forces or leaders who may want to use Zhao will have trouble redefining him to suit their needs. He had too many flaws.

"He will always remain a tragic figure in Chinese history."

But by refusing to break his silence to voice support for the regime, Zhao has retained importance at least as a symbol, according to Columbia University's Andrew Nathan, co-editor of the Tiananmen Papers.

"He remains a symbol of the opportunity lost at that time for bold political reform, and a symbol of the fact that a great wrong was done that remains officially unacknowledged.

"As long as the regime doesn't provide a satisfactory public resolution of this issue, it remains as a political vulnerability around which opposition could mobilise," Professor Nathan said.


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