Zhao Ziyang, the ex-Chinese leader deposed & shunned by his mentor Deng Xiaoping during the Tiananmen crisis, is dead. He will be remembered for having opposed the violence rained down on student-reformers by Deng, Li Peng, and in Shanghai, by supreme-leader-to-be Jiang Zemin.
Some years ago, a number of manuscripts were smuggled out of China and published by Columbia University Professor Andrew Nathan as The Tiananmen Papers. These manuscripts (provided they were genuine) detailed the secret discussions of the Chinese politburo during the Tiananmen crisis. These were seen by some as an attempt by Zhao loyalists to reclaim his role in history -- as a man who understood & sympathized with the student-reformers. If so, the revisionists behind the book succeeded only partially. Our own impressions of Zhao from the book, for example, were indeed sympathetic but ultimately, we concluded, he did not have the strength or worse, conviction, to fully stand up against Deng. Had he done so, Zhao could have emerged an equal of Mao -- heralding the end of the revolution the latter had started.
Instead, the consequence of Zhao's weakness was his internal exile plus Deng's victory & veneration -- also, with his hardline posture in Shanghai, Jiang Zemin replaced Zhao as Deng's chosen successor. Hu Jintao was curiously in far-away Tibet and finds little mention in the manuscripts. Perhaps the fact that his hands were not blood-soiled made Deng pick him as Jiang's successor -- this was perhaps Deng's covert admission of his mistake in Tiananmen.
China has seemingly moved on from Tiananmen -- it has bought the short-term loyalties of its people with the glitter of hyper economic growth. But the shadows of Tiananmen will live on, must live on, and one day there surely will be a full reckoning for all the innocents killed there in 1989. Zhao Ziyang's passing is a milepost on that road to reckoning.
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