The prisoner of conscience
Zhao Ziyang, 1919-2005
By Matthew Forney and Susan Jakes
The last time the world saw Zhao Ziyang, he had a bullhorn in his hands and tears in his eyes.
It was May 19, 1989, and for weeks students from around China had camped in Tiananmen Square calling for China's aging leaders to give them democracy. Many saw Zhao, the reform-minded General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as their greatest hope.
When he arrived shortly before dawn, hunger-striking students literally reached their arms out to him, thinking the government had backed down and that they had won. But Zhao brought a very different message. He had just left a meeting of China's top leaders and military commanders, and he was powerless to stop the imminent violence.
"I have come too late," he told them.
Weeks later, as tanks rolled through Beijing, Zhao was already under house arrest, where he would spend the rest of his life. He passed his days comfortably in a leafy back alley within walking distance of Tiananmen Square. He enjoyed frequent visits from his five children. With Party approval he played golf on occasion, and snapshots that leaked out over the years showed his body had grown stooped and his hair had grown white.
He died in a hospital early this morning at age 85. Zhao had been in a coma since a series of strokes on Friday; according to a text message from a family member, he had been hospitalized with pneumonia since December 5. China's official news agency, Xinhua, issued a four sentence announcement of the death, referring to him simply as "comrade Zhao" and noting that he had suffered from respiratory and cardiovascular disease in recent years and had passed away after "after failing to respond to all emergency treatment."
Zhao was once China's greatest hope for political reform. He joined the CCP in 1938 -- 11 years before Chairman Mao's peasant army swept into Beijing -- and remained a committed cadre even after his father, a landowner, was killed by Party officials in the late 1940s.
By the 1960s, Zhao had risen to Party secretary of Guangdong province, near Hong Kong, before being purged during the Cultural Revolution for his association with Mao's enemies. As that decade of chaos ended, Zhao was posted to remote Sichuan province as CCP secretary, where Deng Xiaoping tasked him with introducing economic reforms.
Zhao became one China's most popular leaders. Unlike Mao, the "Great Helmsman," or Deng Xiaoping, the "Chief Architect of Reform," Zhao didn't receive a nickname from propagandists. Instead, his honorific came from the people he governed. Peasants in Sichuan used to say, "yao chi liang, Zhao Ziyang" -- a rhyming pun meaning, "If you want to eat, Zhao is your man."
Deng promoted him to Premier in 1980, and made him Party chief in 1987.
The legacy of economic reforms that Zhao promoted are everywhere on display in China, but Zhao's agenda for change was more ambitious still. In a seminal speech in 1987 to the Central Committee, he proposed limiting the CCP's control over government. Many remember the two years that followed as one of the most open periods in modern Chinese history.
"Publications introduced new and surprising ideas, intellectuals freely held seminars and there was a sense that ordinary people could influence the direction of the country," says Wu Guoguang, a former aide to Zhao who now teaches at the University of Victoria in Canada. "If those ideas had stayed current, the Communist Party would look very different today."
Instead, the reformist aspirations that Zhao husbanded were purged with him.
Zhao sealed his fate with an act of courage unseen among China's totalitarian leaders before or since he broke ranks. He alone sacrificed his career, and his freedom, when he sided with the students and tried to prevent the bloodshed that came on June 4, 1989.
In the words of leadership at the time, "Comrade Zhao Ziyang committed the serious mistake of supporting the turmoil and splitting the Party."
Despite the changes that have swept China in the past 15 years, that remains the official verdict on Zhao. It is also the Party's most vulnerable point. Any reformist contender for power could at any time propose clearing Zhao's name.
Doing so would likely divide the CCP between closet reformers who agree with Zhao's ideas and the rest who fear that democracy will mean the Party's collapse.
For China's current, conservative leaders, Zhao may be more dangerous in death than he was in life.