Zhao Ziyang, under house arrest in China since 1989, has now passed away.
His daughter says: "He is free at last."
I never met Mr. Zhao, but in 1999 I interviewed his close aide Bao Tong (an interview which nearly got me kicked out of China). Bao spent 7 years in jail after the June 4th 1989 crackdown. Here is what he said at the time about Zhao and his legacy:
I think history will remember what he said: that problems must be solved in the framework of
democracy and law. I believe that no major problem in China today can be solved outside of this
framework. Not just corruption. Other problems are the same. Outside of the framework of
democracy and law, none of China's major problems can be solved. If we don't solve problems within
this framework we will certainly fail. For instance, the June 4 crackdown failed because it violated the
principles of democracy and law. If the government reverses its position, it will definitely succeed
because this would be in keeping with the framework of democracy and law. Some people say that
Zhao Ziyang failed. I don't see it that way. I believe that Zhao Ziyang won because he upheld the ideas
of democracy and law, so he proved that the June 4 crackdown was wrong. Looking at it another way,
we can see that if the government were to reverse its position on June 4, China would definitely have a
bright future. I believe that this proves that Zhao Ziyang did not fail. His ideals, his goals, they still
stand firm. They haven't just stood for ten years. I believe they'll stand for one hundred years. Of course
I won't be here in one hundred years, but I believe that in one hundred years, people will see that Zhao
Ziyang was more enlightened than Deng Xiaoping on this question.
Some believe that the communist party's inability to own up to its
mistakes will prove to be its achilles' heel. Others disagree. Chinese college students today don't even know what happened on June 4th 1989. Few businesspeople ever think about it any more.
But maybe Bao is right, because these days in China, while nobody wants to talk about "June 4", the Chinese words for "democracy," "rule of law" and "rights" are used constantly by all kinds of people - including officials - as things that Chinese people ought to have. The problem is, how do you achieve these things without also creating "social chaos" (or a bad investment environment)? How does the communist party make policy discussions more participatory without losing power? But at the same time, can it afford not to do so?
Will the Chinese government ultimately be able to handle its ongoing problems of corruption, widening rich-poor divide, labor unrest and ethnic unrest without more democracy (the ability to "vote the bums out" when officials abuse power) and at very least a legal system that is truly independent of the political pressures from communist party officials who want to maintain power? In 1989 the communist party had a choice: open up the policy debate to a wider range of constituencies but also concede some power to them, or shore up their power. They chose the latter. In the short run, they can point to China's juggernaut growth and claim they did the right thing (at the expense of perhaps a couple thousand people's lives, though nobody quite knows because there was never a full count). But in the long run?
In the long run I do not think that Mr. Zhao will have suffered in vain. He stood for the belief that governments should listen to their people. He believed that his government would be strengthened, not weakened by doing so - although it would definitely be changed. Because he stood up, the Chinese government today is probably listening more (albeit quietly and gradually) than it might have otherwise. Ways are found to let people blow off steam locally, on specific issues, before problems come to a head. Police and surveillance are handily deployed too. The current leadership knows they cannot afford another confrontation like the one that happened in 1989. I think they will manage to avoid one. But gradually, slowly over time, I do think China's government will become more participatory. Maybe even participatory enough to be called democratic some day. For that we can thank Zhao Ziyang.