Former leader's death poses dilemma for Chinese govt

The last time an ousted Chinese leader died, in 1989, millions marched in the streets and gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in student-led protests that shook Beijing’s Communist Party leadership to the core.

Today’s leaders looked determined to ensure that the death of former leader Zhao Ziyang on Monday after 15 years under house arrest does not result in similar upheavals, foreign analysts said.

“It certainly is a delicate issue for the government,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, an expert on Chinese politics and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in the United States.

“They may increase security patrols in Beijing and other major cities since they tend to react with an abundance of caution.”

Already poised to head off unauthorised public commemorations for Zhao, authorities stationed extra guards outside Zhao’s residence in central Beijing not long after the official announcement of his death.

Paramilitary police swarmed Tiananmen Square, China’s symbolic political centre, with two busloads of reinforcements standing by.

Despite the stepped up precautions, China has changed vastly in the years since Zhao was banished for sympathising with student protesters, and analysts said they viewed a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen protests as unlikely.

In April 1989, students took to the streets to commemorate another ousted leader, Hu Yaobang, who had lost his post two years earlier following student pro-democracy protests. To replace him, the party tapped Zhao, who as premier had launched ambitious economic reforms that ushered in a new era of affluence and


Today’s university students, young children during Zhao’s era, tend to be focused on carving out careers for themselves in an intensely competitive job market and far less politically active than their predecessors. Few pro-democracy activists remain active inside China, most having been jailed or sent into exile.

The economy is booming, while inflation—a bane of protesters in the late 1980s—appears to have been kept in check.

“Today is a different time,” said Lieberthal.
“Then, it was a great period of inflation, a sense the reforms were off-track, a great sense of underlying malaise.”

During the 1989 protests, Zhao called for compromise and expressed sympathy for some of their demands. During his last public appearance, a tearful visit to Tiananmen Square on May 19, 1989, he apologised to student hunger strikers, saying “I have come too late.”

Activists have continued to campaign for democracy and for a reassessment of the protests and the military crackdown that brought them to a bloody end, with the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed demonstrators.

The party can ill-afford to give Zhao too much, or too little credit.

“They’ll want to show respect but not be overly glossy in their assessments of his role,” Lieberthal said.

President Hu Jintao, and his fellow top leaders have so far remained adamant in their rejection of those demands and of any perceived threats to the party’s monopoly on power.

Yet, many believe that the leadership is moving, though slowly, toward political reform.

“I doubt there would be an immediate re-evaluation following Zhao’s death,” said David Lampton, a professor of China studies at Johns Hopkins University in the US. “But there is a slow drumbeat of pressure for reform within the party. I’d expect that within five to 10 years we may see change.

“Zhao really was a forward-looking individual,” Lampton said.

“He had a vision for political reform, but he was far ahead of his time.” - Sapa-AP