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Opinion: Zhao Ziyang's Legacy -- A challenge to China's leadership

May 17, 2009

The Wall Street Journal Asia.
MAY 15, 2009

As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square
massacre approaches, that history remains as
dangerous as ever to China's leadership. The
soon-to-be-released memoirs of the late Zhao
Ziyang, who was secretary general of the
Communist Party during the student protests, show why.

Zhao was a champion of economic liberalization
and famous among China's farmers for his
agricultural reforms. In the spring of 1989, he
agreed with student demands for transparency,
less corruption and a freer press. As Bao Pu
explains in a nearby op-ed, Zhao's political
opponents ultimately outmaneuvered him, resulting
in Zhao's ouster from the Party, the tragic
events of June 4, 1989 and his 16-year house
arrest. After his purge, banners in Tiananmen
Square asked, "Zhao Ziyang, where are you?" He died in 2005.

Zhao's memoirs provide an insider's view of
events and serve as an indictment of the
Communist Party's stranglehold on power and the
statist economic model. Zhao was initially a
supporter of "soft authoritarianism." But he
understood the importance of economic reforms,
which he implemented as a provincial leader,
first in Guangdong and then in Sichuan province.

His policies, which included rolling back
agricultural collectivization, giving land rights
to farmers and lifting centrally planned
production quotas, were so immediately successful
at improving farmers' livelihoods that he earned
the rhyming epithet, "If you want to eat, look
for (Zhao) Ziyang." Zhao was also responsible for
opening up the eastern coastal region to trade
and development, a policy that laid the
foundation for China's export-led growth.

It was only after his house arrest that Zhao came
to believe economic liberalization was impossible
without political liberalization, particularly a
free press and an independent judiciary. "If a
country wishes to modernize, not only should it
implement a market economy, it must also adopt a
parliamentary democracy as its political system,"
he wrote in his memoirs. He believed that the
ultimate goal should be a parliamentary
democracy, which he saw as the system "that has
demonstrated the most vitality."

This represented a huge shift in his thinking. "I
once believed that people were masters of their
own affairs," he wrote, "not in the parliamentary
democracies of the developed nations in the West,
but only in the Soviet and socialist nations'
systems with a people's congress... This, in
fact, is not the case. The democratic systems of
our socialist nations are all just superficial;
they are not systems in which the people are in
charge, but rather are ruled by a few or even a single person."

The memoirs are pointed in their criticism of
China's leaders, not least Deng Xiaoping. Deng
was originally Zhao's mentor and appointed him to
carry out economic reforms, but in the memoirs
Zhao criticizes Deng's idea of political reform
as merely "a kind of administrative reform." What
Zhao describes as Deng's beliefs have since
become common dogma for China's top leaders:
"Deng believed that a precondition of reform was
an upholding of the Communist Party's one-party
rule. . . . Deng was particularly opposed to a
multiparty system, tripartite separation of
powers, and the parliamentary system of Western nations."

This isn't just a history exercise. China's
current leaders, including President Hu Jintao
and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, owe their careers
to the political coup that took place in 1989.
Mr. Hu indirectly benefited when he was praised
for his bloody crackdown on protests in Tibet.
Mr. Wen, who once considered Zhao a mentor and
even accompanied him to Tiananmen Square to speak
to students, seems not to have been influenced by Zhao's political beliefs.

The English translation of Zhao's memoirs will be
published next week, followed by the release of
the Chinese-language version in Hong Kong later
this month. Instead of writing them down, Zhao
recorded the memoirs on tapes, hoping to
invalidate any claim by Beijing that his book is
a forgery; it's hard to argue with the authenticity of a voice.

In the Internet age, it's inevitable that Zhao's
memoirs will reach many in China. Among his
readers will be those who, inspired by the
students who died in Tiananmen Square on June
4,1989, look forward to the day when Zhao's dream
of democracy takes hold in their country.
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