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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 12:51 GMT
Zhao still powerful in death
By Tim Luard

The Chinese authorities have taken swift steps to minimise any public reaction to the death of Zhao Ziyang, demonstrating their concern that the former leader could prove a more powerful symbol of opposition in death than he was in life.

If history is anything to go by - and in Chinese politics it often is - the death of a former leader seen to have been wronged by those currently in power could well spark anti-government protests.
Chinese read the daily newspapers posted on the bulletin boards along a street in Beijing 17 January 2005
Official reaction to Zhao's death has been notably muted

Analysts say memorial activities for Zhao might become a focus for disillusionment with the rapid economic and social changes in today's China, especially the growing gap between rich and poor.

However, China has changed dramatically since 1989 and it is too early to predict how events will unfold.

So far there have been plenty of tributes to the late reformist leader from exiled dissidents and other Chinese living abroad, but very little reaction from within China itself. Those contacted by the BBC for this article declined to comment - showing how sensitive a subject Zhao remains.

Zhao will be remembered by many Chinese, officials and public alike, as a scapegoat, said Professor David Goodman, a biographer of Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese communist leaders.
Society is no longer as political as it was then - the political mechanism for such protests is no longer there
Zhao Jiangmin, National Chengchi University

"Whatever may be said in public, Zhao Ziyang cut a very sympathetic figure to many within the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], even at fairly senior levels. Probably the more so with the passage of time since 1989", he said.

Tiananmen role

Zhao was stripped of his post of Communist Party secretary-general in 1989 after he opposed violent measures to end the student-led protests based in the square.

He spent the last 15 years of his life under virtual house arrest.

The event that sparked the 1989 protests was the death of Zhao's predecessor as party leader, Hu Yaobang. Hu was a reformist dismissed after being judged too soft in dealing with earlier student pro-democracy demonstrations.

I would doubt if we will even hear his name again in the official media
Graham Hutchings, Oxford Analytica

China's current leaders have carried on with the capitalist-style economic reforms Zhao Ziyang began in the 1980s, but his tentative moves towards political change have remained frozen.

Today's students, however, appear more concerned about making money than pushing for political reform.

While there have been many protests in recent months over issues such as corruption and the wealth gap, they have been mainly in remote areas, involving disadvantaged workers and peasants who may not even get to hear about the death of Zhao.

The contradictions in today's China are similar in some ways to those that formed the backdrop to the 1989 demonstrations.

But there are two major differences which make a recurrence of such protests now unlikely, according to a Taiwan-based observer of the Chinese political scene.

"At that time there was a split in the party between conservatives and reformers, whereas now there is none.

"And secondly, society is no longer as political as it was then - the political mechanism for such protests is no longer there," Professor Zhao Jiangmin of the National Chengchi University said.

But Zhao's official obituary could well be the subject of fresh disputes within the party, say some analysts.

While some senior officials have much to fear from any re-evaluation of Tiananmen, others owe their rise to Zhao's patronage and are thought to share many of his beliefs.
Zhao Ziyang (L) addresses the student hunger strikers through a megaphone at dawn 19 May 1989, with Wen Jiabao (C) by his side
Premier Wen Jiabao (centre) was one official close to Zhao

Premier Wen Jiabao was a close aide to the former leader at the time of the 1989 protests. He was even standing beside him when he made his final tearful appeal to the students to leave the square.

Both Mr Wen and China's current leader, Hu Jintao, have projected a softer image than other post-Tiananmen leaders, giving rise to some speculation that they might eventually "reverse the verdict" on the protests and move towards democratic reform.

But most observers say that any genuine political reform remains a remote prospect and that Mr Hu is as dedicated to preserving the Party's power as any of his predecessors.

"Nobody among today's top leaders, least of all Hu, has any interest in elevating the name and symbol of Zhao Ziyang", said Graham Hutchings, a China analyst with Oxford Analytica.

Such a move would open up a host of questions - including questions about the line of succession through which Mr Hu came to power, he said.

"Everyone in the leadership has an interest in making the coming memorials for Zhao as minimalist as possible. In fact I would doubt if we will even hear his name again in the official media," Mr Hutchings said.

Zhao's funeral is therefore likely to be a low-key affair held under the tightest security, as part of continuing efforts to avoid providing any opportunity for protest.

But the highly critical stance normally taken towards Zhao's political record may well be toned down in official obituaries.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they describe him as a 'communist revolutionary' who 'adhered to building socialism with Chinese characteristics' but made some mistakes," said Mr Zhao Jiangmin in Taiwan.

"They can't say: 'We have an enemy who has just died.' But at the same time, the official judgement on his 'crime' has never been reversed - and it is unlikely to be reversed now."

Why Zhao was seen as a symbol of democratic reform


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