Symbol of China’s shattered hopes dies

Antoaneta Bezlova:

Zhao Ziyang, the deposed Communist Party chief who was regarded as the head of political reformers in the country, has died in Beijing at the age of 85. Zhao, whose name to the Chinese people still brings back painful memories of the days of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy students, spent the last 15 years under arrest in an old courtyard house in the capital. He was punished for appearing alongside student demonstrators in Tiananmen square.

The Chinese government has never provided an exact count of all the people that were crushed and killed that night. Beijing’s official verdict on the events of Jun. 4 is that the protests were a ‘’counter-revolutionary rebellion’’. No vigils or congregations have ever been allowed to commemorate the dead in what seems to be a kind of officially imposed collective amnesia. Nevertheless, Zhao remains an iconic figure both among Chinese intellectuals and supporters of political reform. He was the last party leader to grasp the nettle of political change and his agenda for political reforms, although vague, remains by far the boldest one put forward by a Chinese communist leader.

A former aide of Zhao warned last year that communist leaders were so nervous about the remaining influence of the purged leader that they were trying hard to excise his name from all history records. National leaders fear Zhao’s death could trigger a new uprising against the Communist Party’s rule. The government stepped up security in Tiananmen Square as Zhao’s health deteriorated over the weekend. Nonetheless, the state media remained mum over his condition. The son of a prosperous landlord, Zhao was born in October 1919 in China’s central Henan province. But he defied his background and joined the Communist Party of China, working underground for years. After the Party’s victory in 1949, he emerged as a prominent party leader in southern Guangdong province where following the guidance of Mao Zedong, he oversaw the creation of People’s Communes.

Soon after the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) when Party polices were responsible for the starvation and death of millions of peasants, Zhao advocated a more moderate economic path by allowing peasants to grow food in small individual plots rather than in big communal parcels. Mao’s death in 1976 allowed for People’s Communes to be gradually abolished and more pragmatic economic policies put forward. In 1975, Zhao became party secretary of China’s most populous province, Sichuan. Under his leadership, small rural markets prospered and the lives of peasants were gradually rebuilt.

Zhao’s measures were successful at ending food shortages and he was summoned by China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to Beijing. In 1980 he was appointed by Deng to be premier with a mandate to expand rural reforms. Zhao was among the first to advocate the creation of special economic zones in China’s coastal areas as ways of attracting foreign investment. His economic reforms in the 1980s set the stage for China’s economy and was the impetus to 25 years of robust economic growth.

As a political reformer, Zhao spearheaded a liberal intellectual movement that demanded a radical reassessment of Chinese culture and the history of the Communist Party. Programmes like the famous TV series ‘River Elegy’, aired on Chinese television during Zhao’s rule, called for a thorough re-examination of Chinese culture. Zhao had also made it clear that he sided with the students’ demands for an end to official corruption. — IPS