Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 3

Can Hu Jintao recover from the blow that the so-called “Zhao Ziyang fiasco” has dealt to his already shaky reputation? The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s shabby treatment of the recently deceased former party chief has cast doubt not only on Hu’s commitment to reform but also his integrity as a leader who purports to “put people first.” This is despite the fact that the Hu-led Politburo has apparently succeeded in preventing the much-loved Zhao’s demise from igniting another round of 1989-style anti-CCP protests.

To fully understand the extent to which the Zhao affair has discredited the administration of President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, it is important to examine the many reform-oriented pledges that the Hu-Wen team has made since the 16th CCP Congress in 2002. A month after becoming party General Secretary, Hu made headlines by pledging to restore the dignity of the constitution and the principle of “rule by law”. Both Hu and Wen have repeatedly underscored the imperative of “administration according to law”. This was followed by the Hu-Wen leadership’s largely successful campaign to sell themselves as Mao-style “servants of the people”. Hu coined catchy slogans such as “we put people first”, and “establish the Party for the public good and run the administration for the sake of the people”. And in view of the growing socio-economic contradictions – for example, massive protests by laid-off workers and dispossessed peasants – Hu recently committed the CCP to “building a harmonious society”.

While Hu, who recently scolded former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for selling out the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had made it clear early on that Moscow-style perestroika was out, he and Wen made repeated promises about a kind of Chinese-style glasnost. At the height of the SARS crisis in 2003, Hu and Wen vowed to boost government transparency as well as “media supervision of the administration.” The Fourth-Generation leaders said they honored the masses’ zhiqing quan (right to know). And Wen specifically instructed officials to strive toward “accurate, timely and honest” disclosure of policies as well as statistics.

It is quite obvious, however, that the Hu leadership’s shameful treatment of Zhao has flouted much of its own criteria on honest, open, and “putting-people-first” administration. Most Chinese would not hold Hu or Wen accountable for the illegal – and unconstitutional – deposition of Zhao in late June 1989, as well as his 15-odd year house arrest. Those decisions were made principally by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping and other conservative elders. Yet from the spring of 2004 onwards – when the health of the revered “chief engineer of reform” began to worsen alarmingly – Beijing maintained a total news blackout on Zhao’s condition and activities.

One hour after the 85-year-old former leader passed away at 7 am, January 17, the official New China News Agency came out with a 56-character statement about the death of comrade Zhao Ziyang. Yet from then on, all state media have been under strict orders not to say a single word on developments such as arrangements for Zhao’s funeral, which turned out to be a minimalist yitigaobie yishi (a Chinese-style post-incineration farewell) ceremony. Moreover, editors of Internet chat-rooms were immediately asked to excise all online comments on the former head of the party’s liberal wing. Quite a few websites run by intellectuals were closed down. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kong Quan’s terse answers to the world media’s questions about Zhao were not carried by the official press. Obviously, the Hu-Wen leadership has forgotten about their fellow countrymen’s right to know.

Then there’s the issue of human rights, the protection of which was for the first time written into the Chinese constitution last year. Despite Hu’s much-ballyhooed pledge about rule by law, the civil rights of a considerable number of Chinese connected with the late reformist leader have been flagrantly trampled upon. One day after Zhao’s demise, his children set up a private “hall of mourning” in his house at Fu Qiang Lane in central Beijing for relatives, officials and friends to pay their last respect. However, secret police guarding the apartment of Bao Tong – Zhao’s former political secretary who is also under house arrest – refused to let Bao and his wife leave their building to bid farewell to the fallen leader. Bao’s wife was hospitalized after she had fallen and hurt herself in the course of bitter wrangling with the state security personnel.

Friends of the Zhao family said an estimated 4,000 people – many from Henan, Zhao’s home province, as well as Guangdong, one of his power bases – showed up at the Fu Qiang house to mourn the reformer the first three days after his death. This occurred despite instructions given by CCP authorities to many departments that cadres and party members should refrain from taking part in Zhao-related activities. Probably because of the unexpectedly large turnout, Beijing decided to restrict access to the Zhao home by entirely cordoning off Fu Qiang Lane with dozens of police and state security officers. Only mourners who could prove their association with Zhao – or whose names had been given to the police by family members – could go in.

Moreover, the CCP General Office, which handled the yitigaobie yishi, refused to allow the public to take part in – or the media to cover – the ceremony held in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Ceremony last Saturday. The list of the nearly 2,000 participants in the brief event – mostly relatives and retired cadres who had once worked under Zhao – had been carefully screened by officers from units including the police and Ministry of State Security (MSS). Diplomatic sources in Beijing said MSS agents had also detained a few dissidents who had wanted to hold public rallies to mourn the passage of the “great defender of democracy.”

Both Hu and Wen, a former aide to Zhao, are beneficiaries of the reforms introduced by late patriarch Deng and Zhao. Yet they have adamantly refused to even slightly bend the rules where it counts most: an official assessment of the illustrious former party chief and prime minister. Soon after Zhao’s health took a turn for the worse a year ago, the Hu-led Politburo made it known that there was no way it would change the official verdict, arrived at soon after the June 4, 1989 crackdown, that the disgraced cadre had committed a “grave error” by supporting the student demonstrators and “splitting the party leadership”. Zhao’s family members and much of the intelligentsia, of course, wanted the Hu-Wen team to give a posthumous rehabilitation to his reputation.

According to a source close to the Zhao family, most of the Zhao children were ready to accept this compromise: the official appraisal would pay tribute to Zhao’s contribution to economic reform while making no mention of the 1989 events. The CCP General Office refused – and no eulogy or any kind of statement was read out at the abbreviated funeral last Saturday. New China News Agency, however, released a brief item the same day which contained a one-paragraph reference to Zhao’s life history. While noting that he had made contributions to reform, the statement said Zhao had “committed serious mistakes during the political storm” of 1989. This means, of course, that the current leadership stands by the 1989 verdict that Zhao was essentially a traitor of the party.

Political insiders in Beijing said Hu, who had masterminded a series of tough crackdowns on bourgeois-liberal intellectuals since last autumn, could be the biggest loser of the latest turn of events. A sizeable number of highly respected party elders, including former Politburo members Qiao Shi and Wan Li, had through family members expressed support for at least a partial rehabilitation of Zhao’s reputation. And Hu Jiwei, a former chief editor of the People’s Daily, was bold enough to circulate a long essay saying that the CCP leadership had violated its own rules by improperly deposing Zhao and depriving him of his basic rights. “Zhao didn’t commit any mistakes,” Hu Jiwei wrote. “By contrast, he made a huge contribution [to the party and country].”

Hu’s mean-spirited handling of one of China’s few icons of political reform could cost him the support of the CCP’s liberal faction, which remains a force to be reckoned with despite its much-reduced political fortune. Some pro-West party members and intellectuals have linked the Zhao episode to Hu’s no-holds-barred praise of the late Mao Zedong on the occasion of the late chairman’s 110th birthday in late 2003. In a long-winded address delivered at the Great Hall of the People, the General Secretary heaped eulogies on Mao’s “outstanding achievements” while saying not one word about the Great Helmsman’s blunders during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Hu seems oblivious of the fact that Mao, who championed a voodoo version of “revolutionary lawlessness”, could perhaps be the biggest enemy of the open, law-based, “harmonious society” that he is supposedly trying to usher in.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.