Commentary: Will China Mourn Zhao?

The middle class his reforms helped create doesn't want to worry about politics

When Zhao Ziyang died in Beijing on Jan. 17, China's official press barely mentioned his passing. A four-line announcement said Zhao had died of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses at age 85 after failing "to respond to all emergency treatment." What about the fact that he was once China's Premier and Communist Party chief? Not a word. Nor was anything said about the event that brought him to grief: his support for the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Zhao's sympathetic response to demands for democracy prompted Beijing's top leaders to strip him of his official posts. Then came 15 years of house arrest.

Everyone knows the reason for such tight-lipped treatment of a frail old man's death. Beijing still insists Tiananmen was part of a "counter-revolutionary rebellion." The fear is that Zhao's death will renew the Tiananmen debate -- and encourage dissenters to evoke Zhao's name in their own struggles to create a more democratic China. To keep a lid on any potential discontent, Beijing has beefed up the police presence in Tiananmen Square, the site of Zhao's last public appearance, a tearful meeting with protesters just days before hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them were massacred. And it appears doubtful Zhao will have a state funeral, an event that could prompt mourners to turn into protesters.

Zhao's death could yet become a rallying point for change. After all, the Tiananmen Square movement itself sprang from the spontaneous outpouring of grief following the death of Zhao's reformist predecessor, Hu Yaobang. Similar protests followed Zhou Enlai's death in 1976. "To mourn Zhao is to defend human rights," Bao Tong, one of his former aides, wrote in a eulogy obtained by Radio Free Asia. "To mourn Zhao is to pursue democracy and the rule of law."

The question is whether the symbolic importance of Zhao's death could lead to action in a China that has changed tremendously since 1989. Private enterprise has flourished, individuals have greater freedom in deciding where they live and work, and per capita income has quintupled. For most Chinese, that seems to be good enough. "Students today think China is on the right path economically and there's no point in worrying about politics," says a 28-year-old Beijing University student. "We're focused on what directly affects our future -- like finding a good job after graduation." If Zhao's death spurs no significant protests, it will be in part because many Chinese are too busy working, consuming, and accumulating wealth.

The irony is that Zhao himself played a key role in creating the economic miracle that keeps most citizens quiet. Through his decades in power -- including stints as party secretary in Guangdong and Sichuan provinces -- Zhao spurred the transformation of China from a closed and tightly controlled poor country into an emerging powerhouse. He pushed for change as early as the 1950s and strongly backed initiatives that freed farmers to work their own fields and sell their crops in private markets. In the 1980s he was a key supporter of the Special Economic Zones that ushered in the first foreign investment.

Yet even as many urban Chinese have become more complacent, other powerful forces are driving change across the vast country, far from the university campuses that spawned the 1989 movement. The country's 800 million farmers and migrant workers are losing patience with onerous local taxes and corrupt town officials. China's economy has grown by nearly 10% annually for the last 15 years, but rural incomes today are less than a third of what city-dwellers earn. And quality health care and education are increasingly only available to the urban elite. By some accounts, there were 300,000 protests over such issues last year, though little news of them made it past China's borders. Pressures such as these may eventually prove far more effective in changing China's one-party state than the death of one man, even one as illustrious as Zhao.

By Dexter Roberts

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