HONG KONG — While it seems unlikely that the death of China’s former leader Zhao Ziyang will provoke mass unrest, the way in which it is being handled indicates the profound official insecurity still aroused by the mass unrest in 1989.
“Zhao Ziyang Passes Away: Comrade Zhao had long suffered from multiple diseases affecting his respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and had been hospitalized for medical treatment several times. His condition worsened recently and he passed away in Beijing on Jan. 17 after failing to respond to all emergency treatment. He was 85.”
Those 52 words were all that The People’s Daily, published by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), used to report the passing of the former premier, former CCP general secretary and, above all, the man who set China on its current path of economic reform. The People’s Daily did not accord Zhao’s passing front-page treatment. The three sentences were tucked away near the weather reports.
None of the 1.3 billion Chinese could learn about Zhao dying on either radio or TV.
For an outside observer, it is noteworthy that the CCP has not used Zhao’s passing to enhance its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Zhao’s reforms of yesterday could have been related to the fast economic growth of today, thereby underlining the party’s farsightedness in policymaking.
But, so far, this political opportunity has been missed since the Chinese media were so severely restrained in the way they could report the news. Coverage of Zhao in foreign news channels that can be seen in China, such as CNN or BBC, has been blacked out. Foreign newspapers giving Zhao a fulsome obituary have not been allowed to circulate. Zhao’s death has also demonstrated the extent to which the CCP has been successful in controlling the Internet. No sooner have words of appreciation or of mourning for Zhao appeared in various Chinese chat rooms or Web sites than nearly all have been deleted.
In a nutshell, the CCP has gone to great lengths to avoid using Zhao’s death for a party-boosting history lesson. Instead, as during the Cultural Revolution, so today, the CCP tries to cut the Chinese people off from their past.
Of course, the attempt to suppress all news of Zhao’s passing comes as no surprise. The CCP did its best to make sure that Zhao was a nonperson after the events of 1989. So far it has been doing its best to make sure that he is a nonperson in death, too. Security precautions have been (and still are) stepped up in Tiananmen Square, just in case anyone should have the temerity to publicly remember Zhao. Friends of the family were allowed to pay their respects at Zhao’s home, but when Zhao’s longtime secretary Bao Tong tried to leave his home, he was forcibly restrained from doing so, and his wife injured her spine when she was pushed to the ground.
A special memorial service — but not a state funeral — was permitted Saturday at the Babaoshan cemetery for revolutionary heroes in Beijing. Presumably news of this event will also go unreported nationwide. It has been difficult to reconcile how the CCP leadership wishes to remember Zhao at that service with what is minimally acceptable for Zhao’s family.
Amid these illustrations of the totalitarian state at work, Hong Kong was the one place within China where Zhao was given the remembrance that was due to him, though, even there, some would have liked to reduce the special administrative region to the same silence on the subject as that pervading the rest of China.
Overall, there has been a curious symmetry between the foreign reaction to Zhao’s death and the virtual silence with which his passing has been greeted by the CCP. Essentially, both the noncommunist foreigners and the Chinese communists have focused on one event particularly: Zhao’s visible sympathy for those who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square and across the face of China in April, May and June 1989, and his opposition to sending in the People’s Liberation Army to carry out what became known as a massacre in Beijing.
Foreign reaction has concentrated overwhelmingly on Zhao’s highly emotional last public appearance as CCP general secretary when, together with then-Premier Li Peng (and with current Premier Wen Jiabao in tow), Zhao visited the students in Tiananmen Square. It was, of course, a rare and magnetic moment, as Zhao tossed his sympathies in with the demonstrators and urged them to leave the square, admitting that he had come too late.
In concentrating on this incident and his subsequent dismissal as CCP general secretary, foreign obituaries have depicted Zhao mostly as a democracy icon, often to the exclusion of Zhao’s earlier reformist achievements as premier, and certainly to the exclusion of Zhao’s earlier belief in the necessity of authoritarian rule.
The focus on this one incident would be like evaluating Winston Churchill’s political career solely on the basis of his defeat in the 1945 general election. For Churchill, of course, there was always the possibility of a return to power. For Zhao there was to be no comeback.
Conversely, the very absence of domestic obituaries for Zhao, the fact that his crucial role in China’s reform process has been totally ignored and the obvious effort to make his death a nonevent of a nonperson all arise precisely because the CCP is focusing narrowly on the same events as the foreigners.
The only difference is that, in the outside world, the video of Zhao with the students has been played endlessly while, within China, it is never played at all. In this crucial but significant way, the CCP absolutely refuses to open up to the outside world. Meeting face to face with demonstrators, sympathizing with those who disagree with you, even daring to disagree with what the party dictates — these are all grave sins that the CCP apparently can never forgive.
What does the silent posture signify? First and last, it means that politics once again is driving the CCP to the extent that no one is thinking creatively about the situation following Zhao’s death. This was well illustrated by Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan who sought to silence the foreign press by insisting that “the political disturbance and the problem of Zhao has already passed. What happened in 1989 has reached its conclusion . . . the past 15 years have shown that China’s decision was correct.”
But today’s silence reveals that the events of 1989 have not yet reached a conclusion, and that political insecurity within the CCP inhibits a necessary confrontation with past decisions.
For now, a reversal of verdicts on the Beijing massacre cannot even be considered by the present CCP leadership, let alone discussed.
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