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Zhao Ziyang, 85; Purged as China’s Party Chief

Times Staff Writers

Zhao Ziyang, the natty, liberal-minded Communist Party chief who was purged for sympathizing with students during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, died today. He was 85.

Zhao died in a Beijing hospital after suffering a series of strokes and a lung ailment. He had been in fluctuating health for some time, which occasionally sparked rumors of his death in recent years.

A youthful idealist-turned-apparatchik who climbed the party ladder, Zhao held a variety of posts throughout a career spanning nearly 50 years, from member of the Communist Youth League to governor of populous Sichuan province.

But the man with a penchant for smart Western suits was celebrated most for his emotional performance as party general secretary -- China’s top political job -- during the height of the 1989 pro-democracy protests. “We’ve come too late, we’ve come too late,” Zhao tearfully told student hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square on May 19 that year, hours before martial law was declared. It was the last time he appeared in public.

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Hard-liners in the central government gained the upper hand, sending in tanks on June 4 to crush the demonstrators at the direction of Deng Xiaoping, China’s “paramount leader” and Zhao’s mentor, who removed his protege for being too conciliatory toward the protesters. Zhao was stripped of his titles, blamed for “supporting the turmoils and splitting the party,” and forced to live the rest of his life under virtual house arrest in his alleyway home here in the Chinese capital. He was allowed out only for such private pursuits as his favorite sport, golf.

There’s been much speculation about Zhao’s motivation and whether he knew his appearance on the square would spell the end of his career. Wu Guoguang, a former aide and editor of the People’s Daily who now lives in Hong Kong, believes Zhao was fully aware of what he was up against.

“He definitely knew the political implications,” Wu said. “I’d say the guy had a pretty strong human spirit and couldn’t tolerate that situation, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] going to the square and doing that to students. I think if asked, he would say he’d do it all over again.”

Zhou turned down opportunities in the early 1990s to get back in the game if he confessed to mistakes and renounced his views on the Tiananmen Square uprising.

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Zhao, or at least Zhao’s legacy, may ultimately prevail, however. As China’s Communist leadership grapples with its own legitimacy and keeping its increasingly demanding citizenry relatively content, some scholars believe the party will have to turn back to the vision outlined by Zhao.

Leadership Is Admired

Zhao was no democrat. But he saw the need to allow greater democratic participation within the party structure. Ultimately, short of disbanding itself, the Communist Party may have little choice but to follow his path.

Many Chinese and international admirers continued to regard Zhao as a leader who shared their concerns and aspirations for opening up the world’s most populous nation economically and politically.

“In my estimate, Zhao Ziyang was the most enlightened and capable leader China has had since 1949,” said David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University and biographer of Zhao. “He was the only one who understood the necessary linkage between economic and political reform, and took steps to progressively open up political discourse.”

A party member to the end, Zhao tried in recent years to get the official verdict on the massacre -- and, by extension, on his leadership -- overturned. “There were no grounds for labeling the incident as counterrevolutionary,” he wrote in a letter to government leaders in 1997. “It should not have been suppressed by force.” The government dismissed his requests to reevaluate the tragedy.

There also was hope that the new leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jaobao might release Zhao from house arrest, given that both worked with him earlier in their career and Wen went to Tiananmen Square with him to address the students. But the new administration has adopted a cautious line and showed little appetite for breaking with past party policy.

Zhao’s checkered rise to become the second most powerful man in China, behind Deng, seemed almost as sudden -- at least in Chinese terms -- as his fall from grace.

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Politically Active Early

Born in rural Henan province, Zhao toiled for most of his career in local and provincial posts. He joined the Communist Youth League when he was 13 and the party a few years later. His early work included anti-Japanese resistance activities and low-level party committee assignments in Henan.

After the Communists came to power in 1949, Zhao was transferred to Guangdong province, one of a group of cadres shipped south to enforce harsh land reforms ordered by Mao Tse-tung. Despite his own family background -- his father was a wealthy landowner -- Zhao helped oversee what one author described as a particularly brutal campaign against landlords.

He was an early supporter of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a radical collectivization program that grouped peasants in huge communes. But the experiment went horribly wrong, ultimately causing up to 30 million deaths from starvation, and turned Zhao from a Maoist zealot into a pragmatist focused on reducing class struggle and promoting free-market-type incentives for peasant farmers.

He implemented those reforms with impressive success in Guangdong in the 1960s, after the Great Leap Forward -- then paid for it when fanatical leftists ran amok from 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution. Red Guards attacked and paraded Zhao through the streets of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) with a dunce cap on his head.

He was rehabilitated in 1971, and eventually wound up as governor of Sichuan, where he made his name with agricultural reforms similar to those he was punished for just a decade earlier. “If you want grain, ask Zhao Ziyang,” went a popular slogan at the time.

His introduction of quasi-private plots for farmers paved the way for a nationwide policy shift by Deng in 1978, and established Zhao as a key architect of economic reform.

In an oft-cited 1979 speech, Zhao said: “We must not bind ourselves as silkworms do within cocoons. All economic patterns and conventions that hold back the development of productive forces should be abolished.”

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His success in Sichuan vaulted him to Beijing, and in short order he joined the Politburo, becoming premier in 1980. In an age of dour-looking Chinese leaders swathed in Mao suits, Zhao’s fashion sense, confident and breezy manner, and pragmatic outlook won him admirers at home and abroad, including the United States, which he visited in 1984.

Appointment Is Ironic

Ironically, his elevation to general secretary in 1987 came after Deng removed reformist Hu Yaobang from the post for sympathizing with students who had protested in 1986. Hu’s death three years later, in April 1989, triggered the student-led demonstrations that ultimately brought down Zhao as well.

“In the future, when China has to seriously face the problems of political transition from communism, people will inevitably remember Zhao Ziyang, what he did and what he said,” said Wu, the former aide.

“Zhao Ziyang had a definite and convincing vision of China’s future -- a more market-oriented and politically pluralistic one -- but other Communist leaders unfortunately have not shared this vision,” said Shambaugh of George Washington University. “Their narrow view of power has prevented China from achieving what it needs to truly modernize, but Zhao Ziyang understood it quite well.”

Another of Zhao’s former assistants, Bao Tong, recalls his boss as a kind, considerate man, distinct from both the epic, revolutionary figures who built China, such as Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping, and from later generations of bureaucrats who ruled the country.

Those who worked with Zhao describe him as someone able to calmly analyze a situation with an eye toward its rural, urban-economic, social, white- and blue-collar implications, then work on bringing those varied views together.

“He was always patient, even when China was a mess,” Bao said. “He wasn’t afraid of compromise, as long as it pushed things forward rather than back.”

Wu, who last saw him in 1989, said Zhao had a sharp mind, was well-read and believed in reform drawn from his experience at the local level. His style was to bring together 10 to 20 people whom he trusted and discuss various policy options. He encouraged free discussion, something relatively rare in hierarchical China.

Aides working around him recall an excitement in the mid-1980s that China was changing, especially when some of their ideas were adopted in the 1987 Party Congress. But they were never implemented, and the group became increasingly disenchanted as anti-reform forces gained traction.

Zhao also gained a reputation for believing that there were areas in which the party should not stray. Once asked to censor a movie, he reportedly responded: “I watch movies, I don’t censor them.” On another occasion, prosecutors and public security officers queried him on how the court should rule in a particular case. “Rule according to the law,” he reportedly responded.

An avid runner and swimmer, Zhao once told reporters that he worked 10 hours a day, jogged in the morning and argued with his family at dinner. He also enjoyed his beer. “During national banquets, when they poured the beer, he never refused,” Wu said.

Zhao was married twice and had four sons and a daughter, who all survive him.


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