HONG KONG -- The death of former Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang is a reminder of the tragedy that befell 15 years ago when the People's Liberation Army was called upon to shoot down unarmed demonstrators in Beijing, students as well as civilians. But it is also a reminder that China even today is far from being a normal country where rule of law holds sway.

For one thing, the 85-year-old Zhao had never been convicted of any crime. There was no criminal charge, no trial and no verdict. Yet, in 1989, he was deprived of liberty for the rest of his life simply for disagreeing with the actions of party leaders who acted illegally. Deng Xiaoping, for example, was theoretically in retirement, yet he was the one who actually called the shots.

This is not to dismiss Deng's huge contributions to the country in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. It is simply a statement of fact that those who had ostensibly given up their power made decisions that they did not have the legal authority to make.