Will history do justice to Zhao and June 4?

BEIJING - It was the third day after former Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang died in a Beijing hospital last Monday at 85.

But few people here seemed to know or care that a former leader of their country had died - a man who had helped launch the economic reforms that freed them from the shackles of a planned economy and brought them more than 20 years of development and growing prosperity.

In Tiananmen Square, where Zhao made his last public appearance nearly 16 years ago, red flags fluttered gaily as out-of-towners gazed in awe at the size of the plaza and the majesty of the Great Hall of the People.

The cheerful crowds paid little heed to the police cars and vans that circled round or traversed the square every so often, or to the plainclothes policemen keeping a watchful eye on everything.

It was all too easy to think that these people were callous to be so merry when they had just lost one of their more progressive and humane leaders.

But to be fair, many years have passed since then, during which the government has sought to erase his memory from people`s minds. Today`s university students, many knee-high then, hardly know who he is.

There was also a news blackout on his death, with only an easily missed, two-line notice tucked in the inside pages of newspapers and no reports on television or radio.

It was in Tiananmen Square on the night of May 19, 1989, then filled with tens of thousands of students agitating for democratic reforms, that Zhao openly broke ranks with the party. He went there to warn the students that the authorities were going to clear the place and urged them to go home. He had earlier argued against a military crackdown.

The tanks rolled in on June 3-4 and Zhao himself was accused of splitting the party and supporting the "turmoil," stripped of all his posts and put under house arrest.

Behind the June 4 crackdown and his fall was the fear among party elders and conservatives that Zhao`s reform agenda had engendered, particularly the political reforms that he sought: to separate party and government, increase transparency and give greater freedom to the media.

But in bringing him down, they made him an icon of the very political reforms they feared.

So his death last week, which set him free, placed the government and party in a bind over how to manage his funeral and his legacy.

They proceeded with extreme caution, putting a gag on the media and throwing a security blanket around central Beijing, including Tiananmen Square and Zhao`s home.

The military police were ordered to prevent any spontaneous mourning from developing into into unrest.

The government wanted to prevent the kind of public outpouring of grief that escalated into demonstrations on Tiananmen following the deaths of ousted party chief Hu Yaobang in April 1989 and Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976.

Still, news got round that a mourning hall had been set up at Zhao`s courtyard home in Beijing where he was held captive for nearly 16 years.

Over the week, relatives, friends and ordinary Chinese ran the gauntlet of plainclothes security forces to pay their respects there. Many were middle-aged - those who were already young adults in 1989 and had a deep impression of the man and his work.

One of them, who had come from Kaifeng in Zhao`s native Henan province, said it took a lot of courage for people to come at all.

He had come to keep vigil, he said, adding that although Zhao had not held steady on political reforms, his other contributions could not be ignored.

Another, a Beijing resident, said he wanted to come because Zhao was a good man.

Many who came were strangers to Zhao`s five children, four sons and a daughter, one of whom told this reporter he was touched by this.

At first security was very tight and people were turned away at the entrance to the alley where the house was located. But on the third day, perhaps in response to pressure as Chinese criticized the government`s actions in foreign media, security controls were relaxed and many mourners were allowed through.

But as the trickle turned into a steady stream by the fifth day, security was tightened again and many were barred from even entering the alley.

An angry man who was stopped shouted at the security men, "Do you have any shred of human feelings at all?" This was a question asked by many Chinese who felt that the government had treated Zhao shabbily in life and in death.

In essays and open letters that were blocked here but found their way to foreign Web sites and newspapers, party veterans, democracy and human rights advocates and victims of the Tiananmen crackdown demanded variously a state funeral and a reappraisal of both Zhao and the incident.

The government, at a regular Foreign Ministry news briefing for local and foreign reporters, at first said there were no plans for a state funeral.

But it later relented and said it might allow a farewell ceremony as Zhao was an old comrade, that is, a party member. This meant top government officials need not and were unlikely to attend.

But it appears unlikely that the government will re-examine anytime soon its evaluation of Zhao in relation to June 4, 1989.

At two regular Foreign Ministry news briefings, it said that China`s development over the past 15 years showed its evaluation of that time was correct. That is, Zhao had committed a grave mistake by splitting the party and supporting the political disturbance.

On Friday, the State Council, China`s Cabinet, acknowledged that Zhao had made contributions to the country`s economic reforms.

It seems this is as far as it will go. This is a pity, some analysts said, as political reforms can take place only after Zhao and June 4 have been reassessed, after old ghosts have been laid to rest.

As for the people - and his family - while they accept a low-key funeral, what they want to see is a more positive appraisal of the man.

Taxi-driver Wan, 42, who took part in the Tiananmen protests, thought Zhao was a man of courage and vision, but it was acceptable to have a low-key memorial as he was no longer in position. But one Beijinger said "people will feel more comfortable" if there was a better reappraisal.

At the end of the day, the Chinese believe, history will give a correct judgment of Zhao and of the treatment of his legacy now.

Goh Sui Noi is the Straits Times China Bereau correspondent. - Ed.

By Goh Sui Noi The Straits Times (Singapore) Asia News Network

(Korea Herald 2005-1-27)