A culture famous for keeping secrets, China tried its best to remain silent about the death this week of a famous ex-premier, the leader who sacrificed his career 15 years ago for a future that still remains a dream. Having treated Zhao Ziyang as an unperson since stripping away his power, the government at first reacted to his death on Monday by denying that it mattered. Communist Party officials were apparently nervous, and for good reason. More than anyone else in China, Zhao symbolized the road not taken, the liberalization that seemed almost inevitable in the 1980s.
Zhao twice suffered exile from power. In the 1960s, when he was advocating economic reform, Cultural Revolution ideologues dragged him through the streets of Guangzhou in a dunce's cap. After the national mood shifted, he resumed his upward progress in the party as the protege of Deng Xiaoping, the new leader. Zhao eventually became premier and a principal architect of the new economy. He appeared to be Deng's chosen heir.
All that was before Tiananmen Square, a historic event China tries to forget. What happened there on the night of June 3-4, 1989? Not much, the government says, just a minor disturbance. The rest of the world calls it a massacre. Unarmed protesters, predominantly students, had gathered to demand democracy. When they refused to disperse, government troops fired on them, killing perhaps 1,000. Those same bullets drove the pro-democracy movement underground and drove Zhao out of government.
Till that night, he was an effective and imaginative reformer. He increased trade with the West, cut the bureaucracy, improved output with market reform and tried to reduce corruption. Wu Guoguang, who wrote speeches for Zhao in the 1980s, recalled a few years ago that his old boss believed economic progress and democracy should develop together. He wanted elections, press freedom, independent courts and more than one political party. He considered political reform "the biggest test facing socialism."
So in 1989 he was the natural ally and advocate of the dissidents. When others in the government rejected his opinion and decided to use the army against the protesters, Zhao went into the square and, with tears in his eyes, vainly urged the young people to go home and avoid bloodshed. After the killings became an international scandal, his enemies in the government claimed that Zhao's soft line had encouraged a rebellion that threatened the nation. Finally, Deng turned against him. His colleagues placed Zhao under a respectful form of house arrest that lasted until he died, aged 85.
So far as the record shows, he never changed his views. Meanwhile, the manipulators of state opinion banished his name from political discussions and history books. Young people of today, the equivalents of the murdered students of 1989, may know nothing about him. His death was announced by the People's Daily with one well-hidden sentence. There was nothing on radio or TV, and Web site eulogies were quickly erased. An official spokesman in the government, responding to inquiries, said there would be no state funeral.
That seemed an odd decision -- the man was premier, after all, and quite recently. On the other hand, what could anyone say at a funeral for someone whose existence the government has been ignoring for years? The political leaders brooded while overseas newspapers treated the absence of a funeral as a news event. After three days, the leaders reversed themselves. A funeral, the government announced on Thursday, will be held, but low key. No one said when it would happen, or where.
While this drama played out beneath the surface in Beijing, Prime Minister Paul Martin, that restless travellin' man, came to town, trying to improve Canada-China trade relations. Asked about human rights, he said China had made considerable progress.
In fact, progress toward democracy has been extremely limited in the last three decades. As a trading nation China has matured to the point where most foreign governments trust it to treat them fairly, but there has been no parallel advance in human rights, especially the right to know. China remains a bitter, secretive dictatorship where citizens, particularly members of Falun Gong, routinely vanish into forced-labour camps and even the most basic facts about recent history can be hidden from view.
But if China hasn't changed, perhaps we have. Our thinking about human rights has grown sophisticated. We have taught ourselves that tyrants can be forgiven their sins, providing they control vast markets we covet.