When Britain's Margaret Thatcher signed the 1984 agreement
handing Hong Kong over to China, the man she signed it with was one
of China's brightest lights, reform-minded premier Zhao Ziyang. It
was a moment of great hope, with lots of pride and a sense that
China, after years under the yoke of Mao Zedong, would become a
forward-looking, less extreme state. Yet official photos of that
signing now blur or diminish Zhao, or crop him out entirely.
Zhao, who opposed the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on
student protest in 1989, and whose ideas prefigured China's economic
rise, is still airbrushed out of Chinese history. Four days after
his passing, after living under house arrest in Beijing for 15
years, state media has still given only four lines of comment, run
next to a weather map, on the death of "comrade" Zhao.
Now Beijing's effort to silence discussion about Zhao at home has
jumped the mainland's borders and landed in the heart of Hong Kong.
The city is the only place on Chinese soil where Zhao can be
publicly remembered. But a request Tuesday for a minute of silence
for Zhao in the parliament here was ruled unconstitutional by the
assembly president - outraging pro-democracy lawmakers. Wednesday
they stood quietly for a minute, anyway. That caused pro-Beijing
members to walk out, shutting down the legislature for the first
Reformers in Hong Kong say the ruling against Zhao is further
evidence that the spirit of Hong Kong's agreed-to special autonomy
is being violated. Thursday feeling ran deep among democrats that
the dispute underscores a serious cultural distance between Hong
Kong and Beijing, as the two sides get to know each other.
"I don't understand this ruling at all. As far as expressive
politics in Hong Kong are concerned, this [moment of silence] is an
act of humanity and basic decency," says Margaret Ng, a lawyer and
Yet the repressive handling of Zhao's death raises even more
basic questions inside China: Can China, which often berates Japan
for a lack of honesty about World War II, develop the normal
exchange of views that open societies enjoy?
When depicted in economic terms, experts say, China appears more
liberal and open. Yet as a political entity, recent behaviors
suggest the Communist Party and the new leadership of Hu Jintao may
be more authoritarian than once thought.
The Tiananmen event was a watershed that set China on the path to
economic reform, leaving political changes to be settled later.
Those issues run directly through Zhao's life and role as a No. 1
leader in late 20th-century China. Scholars outside China,
diplomats, and exiled intellectuals almost universally see Zhao as a
figure who advocated both political and economic reform, and whose
historical place must be dealt with at some point. But Chinese
officials say their world-beating growth rate vindicates Zhao's
Zhao's famed willingness to go down into the square to meet
students in 1989 sealed his legacy as beloved of the people - one
reason the atmosphere in Beijing Thursday was said to be tense, and
why Tiananmen Square had been cleared for the first time since the
Falun Gong protests several years ago. Some sources indicate that
Beijing officials are now considering a modest state funeral.
Apart from Tuesday's four-line obituary, no mention of Zhao is
heard on state TV or in newspapers. Chinese Internet chat rooms are
being monitored and messages regarding Zhao erased. Earlier this
week, Chinese hoping to visit and pay respects at Zhao's home were
turned away or asked to register with state police.
Thursday, both the Zhao home and Tiananmen Square were awash in
plainclothes security. Police were no longer registering Chinese
visiting the home, but a team was inside filming every visitor.
Zhao's aid, Bao Tong, remains under house arrest.
The US State Department issued a glowing remembrance of Zhao
through spokesman Richard Boucher, calling him a "a champion of
reform at a time of momentous change in China. …