Zhao Ziyang was general secretary for little more than a year before the death of Hu Yaobang on 15 April 1989, coupled with a growing sense of public outrage caused by high inflation, provided the backdrop for the large-scale protest of 1989 by students, intellectuals, and other parts of a disaffected urban population. The Tiananmen protests initially began as a spontaneous public mourning for Hu, but evolved into nation-wide protests supporting political reform and demanding an end to Party corruption.
Student demonstrators, taking advantage of the loosening political atmosphere, reacted to a variety of causes of discontent. The diverse demands of protesters included greater economic liberalization, political democracy, media freedom, freedom of speech and association, rule of law, and to have the legitimacy of the movement recognized. Some protest leaders spoke against official corruption and speculation, price stability, social security, and the democratic means to supervise the reform process. Ironically, some of the original invective was also directed against Zhao. Party hardliners increasingly came to the conclusion that the demonstrations were due to Zhao’s rapid pace of reform, which they believed caused a sense of confusion and frustration among college students. Protests also spread through many other cities, notably including Shanghai and Guangzhou. The protesters may have been encouraged by the imminent collapse of other Communist government in Eastern Europe.
The tragic events of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 sealed Zhao’s fate and rendered impossible any further democratic movement. While he was paying an official visit to Pyongyang, the party hard-liners exploited the opportunity to declare the ongoing protests “counter-revolutionary.” Upon returning from Pyongyang, Zhao made several attempts to steer the course toward what he called “a track based upon democracy and the rule of law”. He opened up channels for direct dialogues between students and the government at multiple levels. He also ordered the news media to cover the student demonstrations with unprecedented openness. A number of legislative initiatives aimed at the reform of press, news media and education were also under way. However, Zhao’s initiatives, along with his conciliatory attitude toward the students, were seen by the elders and other party hard-liners as hastened steps toward breaking free the party control. The evening of 16 May marked the point of no return of Zhao’s political career. At the onset of his meeting with the visiting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Zhao made a stunning announcement declaring that Deng Xiaoping, though officially no longer a member of the party central committee, was still having final say in major decision-making. Zhao’s move was interpreted by Party elders as an unmistakable sign of parting company with the aging paramount leader, his long-time political patron and mentor. The leadership would not purge Zhao while Gorbachev was still in Beijing. But on the night of 18 May, just after the Soviet leader left, Zhao was summoned to Deng’s residence and a hastily called Politburo Standing Committee was called to endorse martial law with Zhao casting the lone dissenting vote.
Shortly before 5 am on the morning of 19 May, Zhao appeared in Tiananmen Square and wandered among the crowd of protesters. Using a bullhorn, he delivered a now-famous speech to the students gathered at the square. It was first broadcast through China Central Television nationwide. Here is a translated version:
Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask for your forgiveness. What I want to say is that you are all getting weak, it has been seven days since you went on a hunger strike, you can’t continue like this. As time goes on, your body will be damaged beyond repair, it could be very life-threatening. Now the most important thing is to end this strike. I know, your hunger strike is to hope that the Party and the government will give you a satisfying answer. I feel that our communication is open. Some of these problems can only be solved through certain procedures. For example, you have mentioned about the nature of the incident, the question of responsibility; I feel that those problems can be resolved eventually, we can reach a mutual agreement in the end. However, you should also know that the situation is very complicated, it is going to be a long process. You can’t continue the hunger strike longer than seven days, and still insist on receiving a satisfying answer before ending the hunger strike.
You are still young, there are still many days yet to come, you must live healthy, and see the day when China accomplishes the four modernizations. You are not like us, we are already old, so we do not matter. It is not easy for this nation and your parents to support your college studies. Now you are all about 20, and about to sacrifice your lives so easily, students, couldn’t you think rationally? Now the situation is very serious, you all know, the Party and the nation is very antsy, our society is very worried. Besides, Beijing is the capital, the situation is getting worse and worse everywhere, this cannot continue. Students, you all have good will, and are for the good of our nation, but if this situation continues, loses control, it will have serious consequences elsewhere.
In conclusion, I have only one wish. If you stop hunger strike, the government won’t close the door for dialogue, never! The questions that you have raised, we can continue to discuss. Although it is a little slow, but we are reaching some agreement on some problems. Today I just want to see the students, and express our feelings. I hope students could think about this issues calmly. This thing can not be sorted out clearly under illogical situations. You all have that strength, you are young after all. We were also young before, we protested, laid our bodies on the rail tracks, we never thought about what will happen in the future at that time. Finally, I beg the students once again, think about the future calmly. There are many things that can be solved. I hope that you will all end the hunger strike soon, thank you.
The protesters did not disperse. A day after Zhao’s 19 May visit to Tiananmen Square, Premier Li Peng publicly declared martial law. In the power struggle that ensued, Zhao was stripped of all his positions. Following Zhao’s dismissal, Jiang Zemin replaced Zhao as general secretary and successor of Deng Xiaoping. Jiang was notable for suppressing similar protests in Shanghai without any bloodshed.
What motivated Zhao remains, even today, a topic of debate by many. Some say he went into the square hoping a conciliatory gesture would gain him leverage against hard-liners like Premier Li Peng. Others believe he supported the protesters and did not want to see them hurt when the military was called in. After the incident, Zhao was placed under indefinite house arrest.
Zhao’s rival, Li Peng, later accused Zhao of fomenting the Tiananmen Protests exclusively for political gain. According to Li, “Zhao liaised with Bao Tong immediately after his arrival in Beijing (from Pyongyang). Bao gathered some other of Zhao’s supporters to hash out the situation. They feared that Zhao’s political future was at stake: Zhao did not succeed in [managing] the economy, was not stellar politically, does not have a power base of his own, and his son was suspected of illegal business dealings. As such, it was likely that Zhao would become the ‘scapegoat’ of the student movement. These advisors suggested to Zhao that he maintain distance with Deng Xiaoping [and] attempt to win the people’s hearts in order to save himself; there were no other options.” Because Zhao was never formally charged with any wrongdoing, it cannot be known what evidence Li had to support his claims. Zhao himself addressed Li’s claims as “slander”.
Zhao remained under tight supervision and was allowed to leave his courtyard compound or receive visitors only with permission from the highest echelons of the Party. There were occasional reports of him attending the funeral of a dead comrade, visiting other parts of China or playing golf at Beijing courses, but the government rather successfully kept him hidden from news reports and history books. Over that period, only a few snapshots of a gray-haired Zhao leaked out to the media. On at least two occasions Zhao wrote letters, addressed to the Chinese government, in which he put forward the case for a reassessment of the Tiananmen Massacre. One of those letters appeared on the eve of the Communist Party’s 15th National Congress. The other came during a 1998 visit to China by U.S. PresidentBill Clinton. Neither was ever published in mainland China.
After 1989, Zhao remained ideologically estranged from the Chinese government. He remained popular among those who believed that the government was wrong in ordering the “Tiananmen Massacre”, and that the Party should reassess its position on the student protests. He continued to hold China’s top leadership responsible for the assault, and refused to accept the official Party line that the demonstrations had been a part of a “counter-revolutionary rebellion”. After his arrest, Zhao eventually came to hold a number of beliefs that were much more radical than any positions he had ever expressed while in power. Zhao came to believe that China should adopt a free press, freedom to organize, an independent judiciary, and a multiparty parliamentary democracy.
Zhao lived for fifteen years under house arrest, accompanied by his wife. Thehutong in which Zhao lived had once belonged to a hairdresser of the Qing DynastyEmpress Dowager, Cixi, and was located in central Beijing, close toZhongnanhai. Despite Zhao’s house arrest, no formal charges were ever laid against him, and he was never expelled from the Communist Party. After his arrest, Deng and his successors continued to believe that Zhao and his subordinates had worked secretly to organize the nation-wide protests, and worried that his death might trigger protests similar to the protests sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang.
Death and muted response
In February 2004, Zhao had a pneumonia attack that led to a pulmonary failure and was hospitalized for three weeks. Zhao was hospitalized again with pneumonia on 5 December 2004. Reports of his death were officially denied in early January 2005. Later, on 15 January, he was reported to be in a coma after multiple strokes. According to Xinhua, Vice President Zeng Qinghong represented the party’s central leadership to visit Zhao at the hospital. Zhao died on 17 January in a Beijing hospital at 07:01, at the age of 85. He was survived by his second wife, Liang Boqi, and five children (a daughter and four sons).
After Zhao’s death, China’s leaders feared an episode of civil disturbance similar to that which followed the death of Hu Yaobang. In order to manage the news of Zhao’s death, the Chinese government created an “Emergency Response Leadership Small Group”, which declared “a period of extreme sensitivity”, and placed the People’s Armed Police on special alert. In order to prevent any mass demonstrations in the capital, the Emergency Group directed the Ministry of Railways to screen travellers headed to Beijing. Chinese newspapers carried a brief obituary, but Xinhua successfully directed China’s domestic TV and radio stations not to broadcast the news. In order to prevent any public commemoration of Zhao, Chinese authorities increased security in Tiananmen Square and at Zhao’s house.
Under the headline “Comrade Zhao Ziyang has Passed Away”, Zhao’s obituary stated, “Comrade Zhao had long suffered from multiple diseases affecting his respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and had been hospitalized for medical treatment several times. His conditions worsened recently, and he passed away Monday after failing to respond to all emergency treatment.” All Chinese newspapers carried exactly the same 59-word obituary on the day following his death, leaving the main means of mass dissemination through the Internet. Chinese Internet forums, including the Strong Nation Forum and forums hosted bySINA.com, Xinhua, and the People’s Daily, were flooded with messages expressing condolences for Zhao: “Time will vindicate him”, wrote one commenter; “We will miss you forever” wrote another. These messages were promptly deleted by moderators, leading to more postings attacking the moderators for deleting the postings.
The Chinese government was successful in keeping Zhao’s death fairly low key within mainland China. Open, public response was absent, though some online commenters stated that they planned to buy wreaths to mourn his death, or had stood in three minutes of silence to honour Zhao’s memory.
In Hong Kong, 10,000–15,000 people attended the candlelight vigil in remembrance of Zhao. Mainlanders such as Chen Juoyi said that it was illegal for Hong Kong legislators to join any farewell ceremony, stating “…under the ‘one country, two systems‘ a Hong Kong legislator cannot care anything about mainland China.” The statement caused a political storm in Hong Kong that continued for three days after his speech. Szeto Wah, the chairman of The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, said that it was not right for the Communists to suppress the memorial ceremony. The twenty-four pan-democrat legislators went against the chairperson of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, who insisted that security be tightened at Tiananmen Square and at Zhao’s house, and that the authorities try to prevent any public displays of grief. Similar memorials were held around the world, notably in New York City and Washington, DC where American government officials and exiledpolitical dissidents attended. In the West, Zhao was editorialized as a martyr who died for democracy.
On 29 January 2005 the government held a funeral ceremony for him at theBabaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, a place reserved for revolutionary heroes and high government officials, that was attended by some 2,000 mourners, who were pre-approved to attend. Several dissidents, including Zhao’s secretary Bao Tongand Tiananmen Mothers leader Ding Zilin, were kept under house arrest and therefore could not attend. Xinhua reported that the most senior official to attend the funeral was Jia Qinglin, fourth in the party hierarchy, and other officials who attended included He Guoqiang, Wang Gang and Hua Jianmin. Mourners were forbidden to bring flowers or to inscribe their own messages on the government-issued flowers. There was no eulogy at the ceremony because the government and Zhao’s family could not agree on its content: while the government wanted to say he made mistakes, his family refused to accept he did anything wrong. On the day of his funeral, state television mentioned Zhao’s death for the first time. Xinhua issued a short article on the funerary arrangements, acknowledging Zhao’s “contributions to the party and to the people”, but said he made “serious mistakes” during the 1989 “political disturbance”. According to Du Daozheng, writing in the foreword to the Chinese edition of Zhao’s memoirs, the use of the term “serious mistakes” instead of the former verdict of “supporting turmoil and splitting the party” represented a backing down by the party. After the ceremony, Zhao wascremated. His ashes were taken to his Beijing home, since the government had denied him a place at Babaoshan.
Push for rehabilitation
After Zhao’s death, there were a number of calls in China and abroad urging China to reconsider Zhao’s role in history. Within China, these calls were largely led by Zhao’s former secretary, Bao Tong. Outside of China, Zhao’s death produced calls from the governments of Taiwan and Japan urging China to move toward granting the greater political freedoms that Zhao promoted. The Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, said as part of a statement on Zhao’s death: “I want them to make efforts for democratization”. A representative of the Taiwanese cabinet, Chen Chi-mai, stated that Beijing should “face the truth about Tiananmen Square” and “push for democratic reforms”. The White House praised Zhao, saying that Zhao “was a man of moral courage who suffered great personal sacrifices for standing by his convictions during difficult times.”
Although some of his followers have occasionally attempted to push for Zhao’s formal rehabilitation since Zhao’s arrest, the Party has been largely successful in removing his name from most public records available in China. Government efforts to delete Zhao’s memory from public consciousness include airbrushing his picture from photographs released in China, deleting his name from textbooks, and forbidding the media from mentioning him in any way. In 2005, former NPC chairman Wan Li joined more than 20 retired Politburo members, including Tian Jiyun, former Vice Premier, in asking the Central Government to rehabilitate Zhao’s name and hold memorial services for him for his many important contributions to China. The Chinese government agreed to hold a ceremony to honor the late Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, but the response fell far short of satisfying the requests from both inside and outside the CPC.
Since 1989, one of the few publications that has dared to print a non-government-approved memorial praising Zhao’s legacy has been the magazine China Through the Ages (Yanhuang Chunqiu). The magazine released the pro-Zhao article in July 2010. The article was written by Zhao’s former aide, Yang Rudai.
The above text is an excerpt from the Wikipedia page about Zhao Ziyan.