Zhao Ziyang, former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), died last weekend at the age of 85. Zhao headed the CCP in the spring of 1989, when demonstrators filled Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He was dismissed days before tanks rolled in to crush the protests, and spent the remaining years of his life under house arrest. Unrepentant to the end, Zhao stood for a radically different China than that which exists today. Even his memory poses a formidable challenge to China’s leadership and serves as a rallying point for reformers.

Zhao was an unlikely reformer, having joined the CCP in 1938 — more than a decade before it took power in China. He steadfastly kept faith in the party even after his father, a landowner, was killed by party officials in the late 1940s. He served in the military during the war against the Japanese and during the Chinese revolution, primarily in an administrative capacity.

It is tempting to call Zhao a pragmatist. He rose to the upper ranks of the party in southern China’s Guangdong province by focusing on land-use reform. Chairman Mao Zedong’s economic theories notwithstanding, Zhao disbanded the local communes and introduced a production system that essentially allowed farmers to work their own private plots. The results were excellent, a stark contrast to the dismal output elsewhere in the country.

His efforts, though, did not immunize him from prosecution during the Cultural Revolution: Denounced as a “revisionist,” he spent four years at forced labor. When he re-emerged, he spoke against private enterprise, seemingly converted to conventional Maoist thought. But when he moved to Sichuan Province, he introduced many of his earlier reforms and extended them to industry, with the same positive results.

Success — grain output increased 25 percent in three years — won him the attention of China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, a Sichuan native, who then brought Zhao to Beijing as deputy premier. Soon after, in 1980, he became premier, responsible for running the country’s economy.

Although Deng is linked to the reforms that have propelled China’s economic progress, Zhao deserves much of the credit for them. In 1987, Hu Yaobang was ousted as party secretary general for showing too much leniency toward student protesters. Zhao was picked to succeed him.

His reign as general secretary was a heady moment for China, for Zhao turned out to be as much a political as an economic reformer. In his vision, the CCP would withdraw from its control over much of the state. He advocated greater democratization and the rule of law. While he was in charge, the party refrained from interfering in the administration of law and it lifted many controls over literature and the arts. He proposed fundamental reforms to how enterprises are organized in China, changes that would have further diminished the CCP’s control of the economy.

His vision of the party’s role in China doomed him. As protesters occupied Tiananmen Square — demonstrations that began, ironically enough, to commemorate the death of Hu — Zhao fought hardliners within the Chinese leadership against military intervention. He lost and was dismissed from office. In his last public appearance, he had met with Tiananmen demonstrators, tearfully apologizing for being “too late” and warning them that the military was on its way.

For his dissent, Zhao was deemed a “splittist” who “supported party turmoil” and was sentenced to house arrest. But he refused to change his views. He dismissed claims that the protests amounted to a counter-revolution and demanded a reconsideration of history. Of course, that was a direct challenge to the CCP’s authority and its claim to the nation’s leadership. Silenced, he remained marginalized. Last week he slipped into a coma after a bout with pneumonia. Xinhua News announced the death of “comrade” Zhao Ziyang earlier this week.

In death, Zhao remains a powerful symbol of opposition to CCP rule. To commemorate his life would honor his vision. To head off protests, the government has cracked down on “intellectuals” known to have sympathized with Zhao’s views, increased the public security presence in Tiananmen Square and played down news of his death. It has censored discussions of Zhao in Internet chat rooms, decided not to hold a public funeral (which his family had refused anyway), and prohibited students from meeting together in his memory.

Yet pressures are mounting for the very reforms that Zhao advocated. With economic advances far outpacing political change in China, social problems are becoming more pronounced. For just that reason, the new leadership seems even more determined to clamp down. One day, however, China will have to come to grips with the legacy of Zhao. Until then, he will remain, in death as in life, a man ahead of his time.

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