Obituary: Zhao Ziyang, former leader of China’s Communist Pary

Zhao Ziyang, toppled as China’s Communist Party (CCP) leader for opposing the military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests, has died at the age of 85, after suffering a series of strokes.

Zhao’s death may create problems for China’s rulers, given that he was persecuted for refusing to support repression, advocating "dialogue" with protesters instead. In today’s highly charged atmosphere, with strikes and demonstrations occurring daily, this may strike a popular chord. The regime has tightened security in central Beijing in recent days, amid fears that Zhao’s death might spark off demonstrations. It was demonstrations on the death of pro-reform party leader Hu Yaobang in 1989 that sparked the Tiananmen Square protests that ended Zhao’s political career and pushed China to the brink of political revolution.

The official Xinhua news agency marked the occasion today with a short announcement: "Comrade Zhao Ziyang passes away" But "comrade Zhao" had been under house arrest since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. He never appeared in public after 19 May 1989, when he went to the square and made a tearful appeal to student leaders to call off the protests on the eve of the government’s declaration of martial law. His aide, Wen Jiabao, who is now China’s premier, accompanied him to the square that day. Two weeks later the streets of Beijing turned red with the blood of hundreds, if not thousands, of young workers and students. In the 48 hours before Zhao’s unexpected visit, over a million demonstrators had marched through Beijing in support of hunger-striking students. Young workers had appeared in the square to announce the formation of autonomous trade unions and a one-day general strike in the capital unless the government met the movement’s main demands.

"National leaders" visit Zhao

Zhao’s former secretary made a public attack on the Chinese authorities following his death. Bao Tong, who spent seven years in prison and lives today under government surveillance, told foreign media that Zhao’s house arrest was a "showcase of shame" for Chinese justice and the CCP. "The fate of Zhao Ziyang is also a chilling reminder of other injustices that are on the consciences of those who are still powerful," he said, before his telephone was cut off.

In the last few months there have been growing calls from within the CCP for Zhao’s release, if not rehabilitation. Hu Jiwei, the former chief editor of People’s Daily, argued last year that restoring Zhao’s freedom would "enhance the CCP’s credibility". Mao Yushi, a veteran economist referred to Zhao in a China Weekly article last year stating, "People will never forget those who made contributions to China’s reformation."

According to Zhao’s son, some "national leaders" of the CCP whose identities it was "not convenient" to reveal, visited Zhao in hospital before his death. Postings appeared on China-based websites mourning Zhao, some critical of the regime.

That section of the Chinese ruling elite that favours more rapid political ’reform’ (a relaxation rather than dismantling of the dictatorship), will undoubtedly invoke Zhao’s memory. More ominously for CCP tops, there are growing calls for an official reappraisal of the Tiananmen Square massacre – officially a ’counterrevolutionary’ rebellion that had to be put down. As recently as last year, president Hu Jintao ruled out such a step, fearing this could open a pandora’s box of recriminations and demands to punish several still living party elders. There are even rumours that an agreement not to reopen the issue may have featured in the deal struck in September 2004 which led to former president, Jiang Zemin, relinquishing his control of the army.

China’s Gorbachev?

Zhao, who during the so called Cultural Revolution was paraded through Canton (Guangzhou) in a dunce’s cap, was rehabilitated by Zhou Enlai in 1973 and sent to China’s largest province, Sichuan, as first party secretary. There he instituted rural land ’reforms’, the abolition of the commune system and a raft of other pro-market measures. This gained the attention of Deng Xiaoping, China’s "paramount leader" (and later architect of the 1989 massacre), who had him drafted into the Politburo in the late 1970s. Zhao became prime minister in 1980 and assumed, in addition, the post of CCP general secretary in January 1987.

In some respects Zhao was a Chinese Gorbachev, who was denied the chance to play a similar historical role as the last leader of the Soviet Union. The views of both men were shaped by the economic quagmire that Stalinism (the system of bureaucratic rule wedded to a nationalised, planned economy) found itself in by the late 1970s and early 1980s. The fundamental reasons for this economic crisis, which saw growth slow to a snail’s pace and a widening technological gap open with the capitalist world, flowed from the nature of bureaucratic rule. To replace the brutal ’self-correcting’ mechanism of the market (which is now at work in both countries with a resultant growth of poverty and social misery) a planned, state-owned economy requires democratic interaction and control by the mass of the population, not a privileged, unelected and tyrannical layer of bureaucrats.

Gorbachev and Zhao, although the latter occupied a less powerful position, attempted to find a way out of the impasse by copying some of the methods of capitalism, encouraging wider income differentials, more financial ’incentives’ for management and a relaxation of state control over the economy. Both men also sought to introduce ’political reform’ while in no way wishing to go beyond the bounds of Stalinist one-party rule. This was a classical case of ’reform from the top to prevent revolution from below’. Some of Zhao’s prescriptions are gaining currency in the CCP today, for example his call for direct elections for government chiefs below the county level and ’constitutional law courts’ where officials could be brought to justice for abuses of power.

Zhao’s ideas – the guide to the 1990s

By 1989, by which time he was party secretary and Deng’s heir apparent, Zhao’s economic ’reform’s had led to a surge in inflation and a huge growth of official corruption – two factors which fuelled the mass discontent of 1989. Paradoxically, and as the CWI at the time predicted, although the 1989 movement led to Zhao’s ouster, the ruling clique were forced to turn back to a variant of his economic ideas after a short interregnum following the crackdown. But with nerves shattered by the sweep of the mass protests, Zhao’s ideas on political reform were put on ice indefinitely. The ruling doctrine under Deng and Zhao’s successor, Jiang Zemin, was one of fast economic growth based on a shift to capitalism, but in a controlled form to avoid the chaos that accompanied the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Stalinist boot remains – in the form of police repression – but now serves a new, capitalist, master.

After Zhao’s death, we can expect to hear comments from capitalist governments abroad on the need for further steps toward "democratisation" in China. In reality, however, the capitalist class internationally stands in solidarity with Deng, Jiang and the other leaders who ordered the crackdown of 4 June 1989, not with Zhao’s futile but personally heroic opposition. Commenting on the current instability in China, Simon Murray, an adviser to Hong Kong’s and Asia’s wealthiest tycoon Li Ka-shing, recently warned that a "coordinated national uprising as happened in 1989", could be in the offing. "If that starts rolling," he added, "China goes backwards".

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January 2005