Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Unperson

Tiananmen Square in Beijing was quiet last week. No one came out to publicly mourn the passing of former premier and Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang. China’s rulers must be breathing easier. After all, it was the passing of his predecessor, Hu Yaobang, in April 1989 that precipitated the most traumatic event in China’s recent history and led to Zhao’s downfall and disgrace.

China’s rulers were also keeping wary eye on Hong Kong, where 20 pro-democracy legislators stood in a minute of silent tribute in defiance of the presiding officer’s ruling against such a demonstration. Hong Kong’s people supported the student protesters in Tiananmen Square fifteen years ago wholeheartedly, and many still observe yearly memorials to those killed in the bloody crackdown.

Thousands of mourners came out to honor Zhao at an unofficial memorial held in the evening of January 21, in Victoria Park, Hong Kong’s version of Tiananmen Square. Heaps of flowers were laid against Zhao’s portrait at a makeshift “democracy wall” on a backdrop of a concert soccer field. It was the only public memorial to Zhao on Chinese soil.

Zhao is as close to being an “unperson,” to use George Orwell’s phrase from 1984, as is possible in this modern media age. The People’s Daily announced his death in one paragraph buried in the last page of its first section, just above the weather map. It as was as if the Washington Post had buried news of the death of Ronald Reagan on page 24, next to the corset ads.

Interestingly, Zhao and Reagan were exact contemporaries. Zhao served as premier of the People’s Republic from 1980 to 1987, when he was elevated to the top post of secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and was considered the anointed successor to Deng Xiaoping. Zhao shared Deng’s commitment to economic liberalization. The two did not see eye to eye on political reform.

In some ways Zhao was luckier than another controversial Chinese leader, former president Liu Shaoqi, who was ousted from all of his party posts in 1968 for criticizing policies of Mao Zedong and his increasingly powerful wife Jiang Ching, one of the “Gang of Four.” He was murdered by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese rulers are not so crude these days. For the past fifteen years Zhao was under house arrest in a Beijing hutong, as they call old style villas with a courtyard. In his healthier days he was allowed occasionally to play golf in southern China. Liu’s reputation was rehabilitated in 1980, so it is not impossible that in the fullness of time Zhao will receive the honor and recognition he deserves.

The problem that China’s leaders have is that they cannot address Zhao without addressing the larger issue of Tiananmen. In the fifteen years since that bloody night of June 4, 1989, China’s leaders have let pass a couple opportunities to seriously reconsider the issue, give the student’s their due and admit that the crackdown was a bloody mistake. The first was the death in 1997 of Deng, the man who called in the troops.

Many China watchers took it as a good omen when President Jiang Zemin, in his eulogy, referred to the protests as “disturbances” rather than using the official terminology “counter-revolutionary riot.” Deng had plucked Jiang out of Shanghai to take over from Zhao after he was removed. Since Deng’s death, however, nothing much more had been said about Tiananmen.

China’s current leadership is in a more favorable position to re-evaluate Tiananmen if it had a mind to do so. President and party secretary Hu Jintao took no part on the suppression of the student protestors, being in faraway Lhasa where he served as governor of Tibet. Premier Wen Jiabao actually accompanied Zhao to Tiananmen Square to meet with the students. In the famous picture taken on May 19, 1989 that shows Zhao with a megaphone, he is standing behind his left shoulder looking inscrutable.

The Chinese have rewritten their turbulent modern history before. Deng himself led a re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution. The leaders do not have to anoint the student protestors as heroes of democracy. Many of them had only the foggiest notion of democracy. But Beijing needs to acknowledge that they acted from noble, even patriotic motives. As the students and Zhao himself proclaimed over and over, the aim was not to topple the party but to spur it toward positive change, a goal entirely consistent with the political hierarchy’s on position.


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