Will China find the memory of Zhao Ziyang too hard to handle?

25 February 2014

Rumours of former Chinese Communist Party general secretary and premier Zhao Ziyang's posthumous political rehabilitation have come and gone in the last decade. Zhao's predecessor, Hu Yaobang, was in office for seven years from 1980 and was a taboo subject in China only briefly for what was seen as his mismanagement of the limited Student Protests on 1987 that led to his `sacking' (in effect early retirement) by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.He later merited fulsome praise from no less a figure than the then premier Wen Jiabao in 2010 in the People's Daily. Zhao, on the other hand, is a harder person to handle.

Zhao was directly involved in the build up to the events in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, and was the main fall guy. Hardliners in the Communist Party blamed him for letting things get out of control and necessitating an armed response to the students. Zhao's political rehabilitation is made even trickier considering that powerfully networked figures like the premier at the time of the uprising, Li Peng, while very old, are still alive. A reappraisal of Zhao would also mean a reappraisal of them, most likely very unfavourably. This is something they have vigorously resisted. In 2010, Li even published a bland defensive diary of his time in power.

Despite this, in Hu Jintao's era there was talk of completely revising both the official verdict on the 1989 events — currently marked as a counter revolutionary, anti-Communist Party act — and those involved. Zhao himself haunts the conscience of the party. His death in 2005 was the first reminder of how popular he once was — and his memoirs, posthumously published outside of China in 2009, resurrected all the questions that the handling of the events in 1989 raises.

Rumours that the discussion of Zhao may become less restricted in the PRC were published in Hong Kong's Chinese language newspaper, Ming Pao. These rumours are part of a broad series of signs that the Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang leadership might still have more reformist tendencies than they have so far fully revealed. But from all its behaviour so far, this is a tactical leadership, and one that will almost certainly be making calculations about what is to be gained and lost by taking a risky step like this. If Zhao is publicly rehabilitated, that will be interpreted as a massive slap across the face of leaders like Li Peng, and will be read as one network in the power elite making moves on another — Li's family remain hugely influential. It would be hard to ignore the more current political purpose behind this move.

So far, signs Zhao will be rehabilitated have been muted. Although, a TV program last summer in China dealing with historic issues, did have one episode where one of the actors loudly declared, `When is Zhao going to be rehabilitated?'

Still, Zhao's legacy remains largely a positive one. Recently released papers — from 1984 in the UK about negotiations over Hong Kong — contain a letter from Zhao stating that after the hand back the territory needed to become a democracy. Zhao's daughter has publicly asked for reappraisal, and Xi Jinping, whose own father Xi Zhongxun was reportedly associated with sympathisers of the students in 1989, may well feel the risks of rehabilitating Zhao are worth taking.

After all, heroes in recent Communist Party history are few and far between, and as someone who was only party secretary for two years, Zhao remains a figure who, though sidelined and placed under house arrest after 1989 till his death 16 years later, is still regarded positively by many in the party and amongst the current governing elite. A new leadership sticking their necks out to bring him posthumously back into the party fold — despite whatever else they gain — would at least show that on matters of justice they were not just talking, but actually doing something.