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.

Since then, of course, China has moved on. It is today a major trading power and its economy is an important engine of growth for the region and the world. Yet, in terms of the rule of law, it still has a very long way to go. Political reform is desperately needed.

For one thing, the CCP remains above the state and not subject to the law. This means that the most powerful body in China is, in essence, a lawless body. It can incarcerate anyone it wants to, from the lowliest peasant in the countryside to the highest official, such as Zhao, without going through due process.

Zhao was already 70 when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, leading to his illegal incarceration for life. But the student leaders at the time were only in their 20s. Those who were not imprisoned, who were able to go overseas, are not allowed to go home. They can return to their homeland only if they are willing to face imprisonment. They have been exiled and cannot even go to their parents’ funeral or breathe the air of their own country.

In 1976, when the revered Premier Zhou Enlai died, Tiananmen Square was filled with wreaths in his honor. When those wreaths were removed by adherents of the Gang of Four, the citizens of Beijing poured into the square in protest. At the time, Deng was blamed for the disturbance and dismissed from all his posts. But after the death of Mao Zedong, Deng was rehabilitated and became China’s new paramount leader.

In 1989, when Hu Yaobang, Zhao’s predecessor as party leader, died, once again the square was filled with mourners. This time student leaders were in charge, demanding democracy and an end to corruption and collusion between officials and businessmen. The party leader then was Zhao, who did not want to suppress the students, but he was overruled.

With Zhao’s death, clearly those in power are fearful that, once again, the “masses,” who theoretically are the masters of the country, may once again pour into the square and protest. That is why, even while Zhao lay dying on his hospital bed, new rules were put in place requiring 1,000 policemen to guard Tiananmen Square every day, and for all visitors to be escorted by the police. The powers that be were taking no chances.

The official China Daily Web site published a brief report on Zhao’s death, consisting of only four sentences, and did not give an account of his life. At the end of the article there was the customary invitation to “Comment on this article.” There were only a few comments:

One said: “How to value this former leader? It seems that CCTV doesn’t report the news? Why?”

Another reader wrote: “May he rest in peace. China is now rising both politically and economically.”

Another urged “3 minutes of silence.”

The longest comment ended with: “The only road before us: Follow Mr. Zhao’s track and let people supervise the party and government.”

By late afternoon, the party apparently had had enough — it withdrew the invitation to comment on Zhao’s death.

China deserves better governance. One day, no doubt, it will get it. Meanwhile, the party should try to facilitate rather than obstruct steps toward greater democracy and rule of law.

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