The Streets Are Silent; Why Chinese Seem Sanguine about the Death of Zhao Ziyang

Newsweek International, January 31, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Streets Are Silent; Why Chinese Seem Sanguine about the Death of Zhao Ziyang


Byline: Melinda Liu and Jonathan Ansfield (With Jonathan Adams in Taipei, Craig Simons and Lijia Macleod in Beijing and Alexandra Seno in Hong Kong)

Late last week, the wintry courtyard of a quiet Beijing residence was awash in white, the Chinese color of mourning. White chrysanthemums, white posters inked with black calligraphy, white corsages pinned on the lapels of ordinary Chinese who paid respects to disgraced Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang. Dead at the age of 85, Zhao had spent 15 years under house arrest after opposing the regime's June 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. One of the thousands of mourners was Dean Peng, an iconoclastic economist and democracy advocate who considers Zhao "China's Gorbachev." In a condolence book, he wrote, "We'll carry on the course you left behind; Democracy will come to China," then scribbled his name boldly. "Why should I be afraid?" Peng explained later. "Authorities should be afraid of me. The way they're suppressing the news just shows how afraid they are." He vowed to return over the weekend with a "big group" of sympathizers.

At this point, you might think you know where this story's going. The scene seems to evoke the passions that exploded the last time a popular but deposed party chief, Hu Yaobang, died; that ferment morphed into the 1989 protests. But here's a reality check: Peng's public feistiness was rare last week. Zhao's admirers are many, but most were afraid to visit the private memorial hall where plainclothes police scrutinized all comings and goings. Some dissidents who wanted to come were barred from leaving home. The only place in China to allow public mourning was Hong Kong, where legislators observed a moment of silence and 15,000 people held a candlelight vigil. Most mainland Chinese knew little of Zhao's death, thanks to an internal Communist Party directive that kept media reports down to a terse two-line notice. Among the millions of educated urbanites who learned the news from the Web or word of mouth, veterans of '89 among them, most vented their sorrow for Zhao only in cyberspace.

Nobody expected the death of Zhao, seen as an icon of political reform, to trigger the sort of pro-democracy demonstrations that augured his downfall in 1989. The important question is why. The conventional wisdom is that China's intelligentsia today are apolitical and money-grubbing, more interested in jobs than democracy. The real answer is more complex. Due to economic reforms championed by Zhao and continued after his ouster, urban Chinese today have considerably more control over their lives than they did in 1989. They can choose their careers and where to live, buy cars and drive to Tibet, even compete in the "Miss Plastic Surgery" beauty contest if they want.

To a large extent, Chinese appreciate these personal, rather than political, liberties. According to a Gallup poll released last week, a majority of Chinese say they're "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with their lives and, perhaps most important, were remarkably optimistic as they looked forward to the next five years. When Wu'er Kaixi was a bratty 21-year-old student leader at Tiananmen, the government assigned graduates their jobs. He would have wound up an Education Ministry bureaucrat, or a teacher. …

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