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Paul Monk reflects on the death of Zhao Ziyang and the future of China

Precis: Zhao Ziyang, the former premier of China, died in January. The Chinese Communist Party has been trying to prevent any commemoration of his life and ideas. We should disregard its censorship. Zhao was a remarkable man with a vision for political reform in China. Such political reform is badly needed in China and there is no justification for postponing it. The leaders of the Party now know this; Premier Wen Jiabao not least, because he was a close aide to Zhao in the late 1980s. The task will be difficult and they deserve our sympathy in tackling it, but more than our sympathy, they need our honesty. The reform must come for China’s sake and for the sake of the rest of us. The children of the revolution - the current Party leaders - must be induced to take the reform path.


“We Chinese people have an old weakness: we cling to some things so hard that we can’t let go…This weakness has blocked up people’s thinking, has stifled democracy and science, has aided ignorance and backwardness, and is a major obstacle to the advance of Chinese society.”

-          Li Ruihuan (1992)[i]

“Rapid economic growth is a stressful process…it churns and reorders economic and political elites. It can destabilize the political order that is responsible for the policies that sustain it, unless the political order itself evolves with the economic structure.”

-          Ross Garnaut (1999)[ii]

“China’s embrace of democracy will be one of the defining moments of modern political history, no less significant than the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In myriad ways, it will force a rethinking of history itself and of the assumptions that we make about human societies and global politics.”

-          Bruce Gilley (2004)[iii]


Zhao Ziyang, a former premier of China, was buried quietly on 29 January, at Babaoshan cemetery for revolutionary martyrs. In reality, he was martyred by the ‘revolution’. He had spent the last fifteen years of his life under house arrest, because he had refused to endorse the unconstitutional imposition of martial law in China, by Deng Xiaoping, in May 1989. The Communist Party in Beijing has done everything it could to suppress any public show of mourning for Zhao’s death or commemoration of his life and ideas. We should in no way allow such censorship to inhibit our own reflections on his political significance and the implications for China’s future of the Communist Party’s treatment of him.

Bao Tong, political secretary to Zhao in the 1980s, was imprisoned for years after the crushing of democratic dissent in 1989[iv] and is harassed by the Party’s security organs to this day. Yet he has not allowed the Party to censor his strong opinions, although he was physically prevented from visiting Zhao’s family immediately after the elder statesman died.[v] He remarked, in mid-January, that the fate of Zhao Ziyang was a matter of lasting shame to the Communist Party and “a chilling reminder of other injustices that are on the consciences of those who are still powerful”.[vi]

Many other Chinese dissidents have expressed similar opinions. Yan Jiaqi, living in exile in New York, for example, described Zhao Ziyang as a greater Chinese premier than the celebrated Zhou Enlai[vii] and declared that he should be hailed by the Party as having been “the people’s good premier”. Wu Guoguang, who was an adviser to Zhao on political reform in the 1980s, has said that Zhao’s plans to change the inner workings of the one-party state are not well known and have been shelved by the Party since 1989, but that he was genuinely committed to serious political reform.[viii]

It is not only dissidents, however, who have been affected by Zhao Ziyang’s death. There is evidence that very many members of the Party, both retired and still in office, have paid their respects to the late reformer.[ix] Unlike the dissidents, they have for the most part done this in secret, or in muffled tones. According to Zhao Ziyang’s son, Liang Fang, “national leaders” visited Zhao in hospital before his death. While Liang told Reuters that it was "not convenient" to reveal their identities, it seems highly probable that one of them was Premier Wen Jiabao.

For most people who follow Chinese affairs at all, the last memorable image of Zhao Ziyang, perhaps the last image of any kind, was that of the Chinese premier addressing students in Tiananmen Square, on 19 May 1989, having just resigned as General Secretary of the Communist Party, over the unconstitutional directive by Deng Xiaoping to impose martial law. Standing right behind his left shoulder in those pictures is Wen Jiabao, then head of the Party’s Central Office and a key aide to Zhao.

Wen Jiabao himself has an interesting history. He almost embodies both the achievements and the failures of China in the past generation. Born in 1944 in the north eastern city of Tianjin, he grew up under the Communist regime. He studied geology and geo-mechanics at Beijing University in the mid-1960s, even as the Cultural Revolution was inflicted on the country, survived the storm and spent 14 years working as a geologist in Gansu - roughly the equivalent of working in Western Australia’s Pilbara region for a very large mining company.

It was while working there, in 1981, that the 37 year old Wen attracted the attention of senior Party officials on the lookout for talented younger people to drive the era of reform and opening initiated just two years earlier. The Minister for Geology and Mineral Resources, Sun Daguang, brought him to Beijing and his rise through the ranks began. From early 1985, he worked at the top of the Party’s Central Office - the administrative clearing house which oversees the paperwork and the security of the Party leadership.

In this capacity, over the following eight years, he worked for three successive general secretaries: Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and Jiang Zemin. He witnessed, at first hand, the plans by Hu and Zhao to reform the Party and alter its totalitarian culture, then the conservative retrenchment under Jiang. He served all three diligently and effectively.[x] He rose to the next level, in 1997, when he was appointed to the Politburo and, over the following five years, he served Premier Zhu Rongji as an economic reform manager. In 2002, he was nominated to succeed Zhu as Premier, the position he now holds.

What a conversation Zhao and Wen might have had in the days or weeks before the old man’s death, if Zhao had been able to converse and Wen willing to do so. In reality, it is improbable that much conversation occurred, assuming that Wen was at Zhao’s bedside. One imagines a constrained but humanly moving farewell. Of course, unlike dissidents who were verbally and physically assaulted for attempting to pay their respects at Zhao’s family home, Wen did not suffer any physical obstruction, or have security officers yelling at him that Zhao was “a political criminal”.[xi]

Yet Zhao was treated as a ‘political criminal’ for the last fifteen years of his life. As Bao Tong has pointed out, this tells us a great deal about the nature of the Chinese regime.[xii] What was, in sober truth, politically criminal was the behaviour of the elders and apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party in May-June 1989, not that of Zhao Ziyang. The task which Zhao approached so carefully and thoughtfully in the late 1980s, which the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere across China in the spring of 1989 were calling for, and which remains a very long way from having been accomplished, was reform to free China precisely from political criminality.

Wen Jiabao knows all this as well as anyone in China, to say nothing of the outside world. He knows that it was not simply economic reform that was necessary, as of the late 1970s, in order to save China from the disasters of Maoism. It was also political reform. For all the purges of research institutes and Party rank and file after 4 June 1989, the Party is still riddled with people who know full well that Communist dictatorship unchecked by a free press, or a legitimate political opposition, or even adherence to the constitution by the Party’s most senior members, has abused the freedom and security of the Chinese people for decades. That dictatorship must end. The only question is how.[xiii]

The current generation of Chinese leaders, including Wen, are, literally, the children of the revolution and of the dictatorship. They all grew up after the Communist Party had seized power. Many of their fathers fought in the civil war that brought it to power. They and their parents lived through and often suffered because of the Cultural Revolution. Most of them were brought into the centre of power and groomed for leadership by Deng Xiaoping, once he ended the chaos of Maoism and set China on a course of more or less rational reform. Their agenda has been reform, for the past twenty five years. This has to be our guide to both understanding them and conducting diplomatic dialogue with them over the next decade.

These are interesting people, with rich personal, family and Party biographies and complex agendas, rooted in decades of national upheaval and internal Party strife. They are not mere Party hacks or ideological fanatics. They know all too well what has been going on in their country throughout their lifetimes. They saw, in their youth, how radicalism could devastate the country. They were raised to high office within a Party all but torn apart by the tensions of the early reform era. They have been given responsibility for steering it through the next phase of reform. The greatest challenge they confront is how to engineer political reform without seeing it run out of control. They deserve our sympathy in this vast undertaking, but even more they need our honesty.

Such honesty must reach deeply into Chinese history and Party history, in order to keep before their eyes the profound contradictions between the ideals of the revolution their parents fought for and the realities not only of Maoist China but of contemporary China. It is most evident in the fact that the Party repeatedly and arbitrarily violates the rights granted to the citizens of the People’s Republic under a constitution drafted and approved by the Party itself. Rights to freedom of expression, association, religion, assembly, debate are systematically suppressed.

Luo Gan, Jiang Zemin’s head of internal security and former top aide to the hardline Premier of the early 1990s, Li Peng, now Secretary of the Party Central Commission for Politics and Law, embodies this contradiction. He still believes that all political dissent should be totally eliminated.[xiv]  That cannot be the road forward. It is a dead end. It is, in fact, under China’s existing constitution, to say nothing of broader principles of democratic politics and human rights, a politically criminal attitude.[xv] Yet, interestingly, Luo is said to have considerable sensitivity to foreign criticism of human rights abuses in China and has made energetic efforts to reduce outright abuses in both the police and judicial systems.[xvi]

The next step is to reduce the institutionalised abuse of the political rights of citizens, by respecting and genuinely legitimising the practice of dissent. What the Party has never understood and has still to learn is that legitimate opposition is not only less dangerous to a regime than illegitimate and frustrated opposition, but is also much better for such a regime. It is a far surer way of keeping a regime honest and innovative than the tried and untrue Party methods of Discipline Inspection Commissions and purges.

Zeng Qinghong is the Director of the Party Central School and head of the Party Secretariat. He ought be amenable to this argument, despite being a thoroughly dug in tactician and numbers man among the current generation of Party leaders. His family has lived through it all. His father, Zeng Shan, was the chairman of the first Communist polity in China - the renegade ‘soviet’ in Jiangsi, between 1927 and 1935. Born in 1939, he grew up in a family which had lost many members in the fierce anti-Communist extermination campaigns by the Guomindang, before the Long March. He was in his twenties during the gigantic famine caused by the Great Leap Forward and the chaos and terror caused by the Cultural Revolution. He was forty when Deng Xiaoping initiated much needed reform.

An emerging figure who surely will be open to serious dialogue about political reform is Xi Jinping. Born in 1953, he is the son of Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002), one of the founders of the Communist guerrilla movement in north China. His father welcomed Mao to Yan’an in 1935, at the end of the Long March, was imprisoned by him during a purge at the Communist base in the early 1940s, was purged again during the Cultural Revolution, yet rose to be a member of the Politburo under Deng Xiaoping. In 1986-87, he was its only member to stand up for the political reformer Hu Yaobang, when he came under attack.[xvii] The younger Xi has won his spurs as the governor of Fujian, since 2000, where he has laboured to make the province attractive to Taiwanese investors and to foster a market economy.

But it is not only its own history that should feed into dialogue with the Chinese government. There is a rich history of democratic dissent and anti-authoritarian activism in modern China which is too often neglected, because it long suited both Nationalist and Communist dictatorships to suppress it. It goes back to the last years of the Qing Dynasty and, as Edmund Fung showed in his a recent path-breaking study, In Search of Chinese Democracy[xviii], strengthened conceptually during the 1930s and 1940s, in opposition to dictatorship. Those struggles are not mere detritus in the dust bin of history. They are the compost heap from which the shoots of a twenty first century Chinese democratic movement will grow. This has been borne out by the emergence of democracy in Taiwan, despite decades of repression by the Guomindang.

There is reason to believe that the children of the revolution, now the leaders of China, see the status of Taiwan as the central geopolitical challenge before them; a test of China’s standing vis a vis the United States and Japan. But it is actually the central challenge before them for a very different reason. It is a flourishing democratic state that is resisting ingestion by the dictatorship in China almost entirely because its people value their hard won democratic freedoms. Ignoring this reality, President Hu Jintao and his political colleagues are set to push through the Chinese ‘parliament’, the National People’s Congress (NPC), in March, a ‘law’ requiring that the Chinese government go to war should Taiwan ‘secede’.

This brings together everything that is questionable about the Party’s dictatorship. There will be no meaningful debate in the NPC over this measure, because it is not a debating chamber. The ‘law’ is being passed in order to override and coerce the will of 23 million people in what the Party asserts is a province of China, thus threatening to bring on a crisis far worse than that triggered by the Party’s dictatorial ways in China itself in 1989. Above all, it suggests that the children of the revolution remain the prisoners of nationalist chauvinism and cannot conceive of more imaginative ways of dealing with Taiwan than by threats of war.

In all this, the Party’s suppression of mourning for the late Zhao Ziyang and its attempt to suppress the freedom of the people of Taiwan, are of a piece with its relentless efforts to totally eliminate political dissent to their dictatorship. There is nothing to be said in favour of these fearful and arbitrary approaches to the challenges which confront China’s leaders. There is no reasonable justification for them, only rationalizations based on a hollow presumption that the Party’s monopoly on power must be maintained and that its sovereignty over China is indivisible. The truth is otherwise. That monopoly, that indivisible power must end. Zhao Ziyang knew that and sought to prepare intelligently for a transition to genuine constitutional rule. The children of the revolution must now be induced to take the same path.


[i] Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley (eds) China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, Granta Books, London, 2003, p. 79. For an interesting and vigorous critique of this book, see Alfred L. Chan ‘Review Essay: China’s Fourth Generation: The New Rulers and the Secret Files’, The China Journal, No. 50, July 2003, pp. 107-119, followed by the authors’ response, ibid. pp. 121-125.

[ii]  Ross Garnaut ‘Twenty Years of Economic Reform and Structural Change in the Chinese Economy’, in Ross Garnaut and Ligang Song (eds) China: Twenty Years of Reform, Asia Pacific Press, ANU, Canberra, 1999, p. 23.

[iii] Bruce Gilley China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004, p. 243.

[iv] Merle Goldman Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era, Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 334: “Bao Tong…was arrested shortly after the imposition of martial law, and his Institute for the Reform of the Political Structure was purged and dismantled. He was finally brought to trial in July 1992 and sentenced to nine years in prison, reduced to seven because of the time he had already served, supposedly for leaking state secrets. He was actually a scapegoat for Zhao Ziyang, who was too closely associated with Deng Xiaoping to be tried.”

[v] Catherine Armitage ‘Figurehead of Change’, The Weekend Australian, 22-23/01/05. Dozens of others were similarly physically prevented from paying their respects, according to eye witness accounts. A number of them were severely beaten by police.  ‘Police detain, severely beat Zhao Ziyang Mourners’ Taipei Times, 28 January 2005, p. 1.

[vi] Bao Tong ‘A Remembrance of Zhao Ziyang’, Taipei Times, 19 January 2005, p. 8.

[vii] In a report on this suppression, The Weekend Australian (29-30 January 2005, p. 13) rather curiously conflated Zhao with Zhou, heading its column ‘Dissent Ban on Zhou’s Farewell’.

[viii] Merle Goldman op. cit. pp. 232-33, underscores how Wu Guoguang drafted plans for political reform in 1986-87, which Zhao approved, but which were blocked by Deng Xiaoping in preparations for the Thirteenth Party Congress, in 1987.


[ix] “There was enormous pressure within the party to allow mourners a chance to express themselves and to recognize Zhao's achievements," said Wu Jiaxiang, a former senior party official who was denied an invitation to the event. "The party leadership wanted to dismiss him, but it had to retreat.” Joseph Kahn ‘China’s Fear of Ghosts: Balancing Stability and Dissent’, The New York Times, 29 January 2005.

[x] Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley (eds) China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, Granta Books, London, 2003, pp. 91-95.


[xi] ‘Police detain, severely beat Zhao Ziyang Mourners’ Taipei Times, 28 January 2005, p. 1. “Police shouted at the petitioners that Zhao, who spent nearly 16 years under house arrest until his death last week, was a ‘political criminal’, the witness said. They said, “Why are you commemorating him? You're clearly opposing the government.” But the petitioners said “We think differently. We think he's a good person”, the witness said. Also last week, an estimated 80 to 90 petitioners were rounded up near Zhao's traditional courtyard home in Beijing for trying to get inside to pay respects and express condolences to his family, petitioners said.”

[xii] It is a striking and disturbing aspect of the human rights situation in contemporary China that the many victims of Communist Party abuse remain almost entirely unknown in Western societies, except among a small circle of specialists or exiles. Such figures as Liu Xiaobo, Yu Jie, Zhang Zhuhua, Liu Di, Du Daobin, Zhao Yan, Shi Tao, Wang Guangze, Wang Yi, Li Rui, Cui Jian, Gao Yaojie, Wang Shuo and Jian Yanyong, for example, instead of being household names among all those concerned with human rights around the world, tend to be a mere blur of unpronounceable Chinese syllables even to those who occasionally see their names in the Western press. See Catherine Armitage ‘Winter of China’s Discontents’, The Australian, 20 December 2004, p. 12.

[xiii] On the prospects for a practicable introduction of democracy in China, see Larry Diamond and Ramon Myers (eds) Elections and Democracy in Greater China, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001, 200 pp. Anne Thurston, herself a notable scholar of human rights in China, in reviewing the book, wrote, in 2003, “In March 1999, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution brought together leading American scholars to discuss the future of democracy for the 1.3 billion people of greater China - Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland. The result is a state of the art analysis. No other book offers a better, more comprehensive look at the prospects for democracy in China.” The China Journal, No. 50, July 2003, p. 187.

[xiv] Nathan and Gilley op.cit. p. 191.

[xv] Writing in the journal Crescent, in July 1929, the Chinese liberal intellectual Luo Longji “proclaimed that the bankruptcy of human rights in [Nationalist] China was a fact that could not be covered up, accusing the government of arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trail and secret executions. These actions, he went on, were not isolated incidents, perpetrated by individual corrupt and cruel officials; rather, they were symptomatic of a bad system of government, for which the leadership should be held responsible. His attacks on the government were direct and powerful, pulling no punches and mincing no words. ” Edmund S. K. Fung In Search of Chinse Democracy: Civil Opposition in Nationalist China 1929-1949, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 59. How little has changed in Chin ain the intervening 75 years! Indeed, in important respects, things got far worse under the Communist Party.

[xvi] Nathan and Gilley, op. cit. p. 110.

[xvii] Ibid. p. 121.

[xviii] Edmund S. K. Fung In Search of Chinese Democracy: Civil Opposition in Nationalist China 1929-1949, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 407 pp. Fung’s work centres on those figures who dissented from the imposition of ‘political tutelage’ on the Chinese republic by Sun Yatsen and of personal dictatorship by Chiang Kaishek. Most prominent among them were the liberal intellectuals Hu Shih (1891-1962) and Luo Longji (1896-1965). What is of particular significance is that their cause went backwards while they were alive, both in China and on Taiwan, but has now triumphed in Taiwan. The big breakthrough is yet to come in China, but they remain its progenitors and prophets.

Hu, Luo and a few others formed the Human Rights Group (Renquanpai) in 1929, in opposition to Chiang Kaishek’s dictatorship. They were building on a background of enlightenment and critical reaction to repression and corruption throughout the previous decade - chiefly by graduates of the American-connected Qinghua University in Beijing. Shortly after the formation of the Human Rights Group, Hu Shih published an article in the liberal journal Crescent, attacking the Guomindang’s incoherent and dictatorial approach to human rights, in terms directly relevant, right up to the present, to the Communist Party’s approach to them. See Fung, op. cit. pp. 51-58