China surrounds Zhao’s death with curtain of silence

Should we be surprised to see the CCP blacking out CNN news reports of Zhao Ziyang’s death and instructing the state-run media not to report the news? Nah. It was predictable.

Chinese leaders imposed a ban today on news reports about the death of Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party chief who opposed the 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters, suggesting that his official obituary would treat him as a pariah.

The New China News Agency issued a terse dispatch announcing that Mr. Zhao, who was 85 years old, died early today. But the news agency identified Mr. Zhao simply as a “comrade,” not as China’s former top political leader, and the main evening news broadcast made no mention of his passing.

Editors said that propaganda officials had ordered television stations and newspapers not to report about Mr. Zhao, and popular Web sites were instructed to ban public discussion of the former leader.

The tight control suggested that President Hu Jintao might not permit even a modest posthumous rehabilitation of Mr. Zhao, who enjoyed popularity among some former colleagues as well as many critics of the government at home and abroad. It remained unclear whether the state would allow Mr. Zhao a public funeral.

The China Daily forums had no threads on his death (at least not when I last checked), and one article I read claimed many Chinese Web sites were closed altogether to keep message boards from running with the story. One of his aides complained that Zhao has been “airbrushed from history”.

Bao Tong also took angry aim at Chinese authorities who held Zhao under house arrest from 1989 until his death on Monday at age 85.

“Zhao Ziyang is with us!” Beijing-based Bao wrote in a eulogy to which Radio Free Asia (RFA) obtained exclusive broadcast rights. “He still lives as part of a heroic and mighty task, that of pioneering the protection of human rights and democracy for the Chinese people.”

Bao’s phone service was suspended soon after he released the statement, leaving him unable to broadcast it himself.

“Zhao Ziyang was ousted and put under house arrest for advocating democracy and the rule of law. What crime did Zhao Ziyang commit? Is democracy guilty of something? Is the rule of law guilty of something?”

In the same article, Tiananmen Square student leader Wang Dan remarks, “The Communist Party is bad, but that doesn’t mean every Communist Party member is bad.” Well said.

Xinhua’s aforementioned “terse dispatch” (to the world, but not to its own people) was full of love and praise for the old man, and brimming with barely concealed emotion:

Comrade Zhao Ziyang died of illness in a Beijing hospital Monday. He was 85.

Comrade Zhao had long suffered from multiple diseases affecting his respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and had been hospitalized for medical treatment for several times. His conditions worsened recently, and he passed away Monday after failing to respond to all emergency treatment

And that’s that. (Yes, I was being a bit sarcastic about the “love and praise.” At least they call him “Comrade.”) It would be nice to see the people come out en masse to show Zhao the respect and recognition he deserves, but it won’t happen. Deng prevailed; to get rich is glorious, and taking time out for Zhao would mean time away from getting rich. The Chinese have different priorities now than they did in 1989, for better or worse.

Update: I liked one of the comments from the thread immediately below that I wanted to highlight it here:

If Zhao had remained in power after 1989, China’s reforms would not have slowed down. Quite the contrary, Zhao had been the key designer of many of the reforms of the 1980s. The 1990s were so good economically precisely because of the actions taken in the 1980s. Zhao certainly would have continued the pace of reform. And let’s not forget, when Jiang assumed office he was weak and scared and hesitant to push economic reform too far. It was only when Deng took his “southern tour” in 1992 that Jiang got the economic reform religion. If Zhao had survived politically, China’s economy would be just as strong as it is today, and the country would likely be experiencing some degree of political liberalization. Zhao may not have been a real democrat but his greatest legacy will be that he refused to kill his own people in 1989.

Nicely stated.

The Discussion: 33 Comments

I just got a reply from a university studient I asked about his response, and that of his contemporaries, to Zhao’s passing. To paraphrase, he said it has been a long time since Zhao was in power or in the news, so he and his contemporaries don’t have a very strong identification with him. He notes that there has been little commentary on the web, and adds that it might be because of censorship. He doesn’t believe that Zhao’s death will cause much of a sensation “in the society.”

January 17, 2005 @ 5:35 pm | Comment

It seems that the CCP’s first move is in the direction of repression of any discussion and avoidance of public funeral. Two questions. 1) Can they really pull it off? It will be a real test of the power of the internet. Perhaps repression is made easier by the fading of Zhao’s memory after 15 years, as Ellen suggests. But those who want to make something of it have more capacity now, with the web, than the Zhou Enlai mourners had in 1976; maybe they just lack the will. 2) Why is the CCP so fearful and weak that they are unable to face their own history? To my mind, this points to the continuing power of Jiang Zemin. He would still stand to lose influence if there was a reversal of the verdict of 6/4. On the othe hand, a Zhao Ziyang funeral would be the perfect opportunity for Hu Jintao to separate himself for good from Jiang and strike out in a more liberal direction, if he so chose. It may be, though, that Hu is still to weak and Jiang too strong.

January 17, 2005 @ 6:04 pm | Comment

I saw a few people talking about him on the BBS … I don’t know about it being censore there.

January 17, 2005 @ 6:05 pm | Comment

Ellen, thanks for the report from the front.

Emile, I just went to the CD forums and if there is any mention of Zhao I can’t find it — at least, there’s no thread with his name in it.

Sam, you ask great questions. I’m hearing a lot of people say, If only Hu can emerge from Jiang’s shadow… But I have to wonder, could it be that what we are seeing now is the real Hu — a man comittted to continued censorship and suppression, a man of the old school? I hate to think that is true, as I had such lofty hopes. But where is the indication I should think otherwise?

January 17, 2005 @ 6:30 pm | Comment

I wouldn’t hold your breath for mass protests over Zhao Ziyang’s death. It seems that the events of June 4th are not salient to the daily lives of the average laobaixing. It feels like the overseas dissident community and bloggers like us that make a big deal over Tiananmen these days.

Last year’s controversy over the letter that SARS hero Dr. Jiang Yanyong wrote criticizing the Party’s handling of Tiananmen in 1989 and since then registered nary a blip on the radar of the Chinese public.

Money and media control. Until the Party slips up on either one of those, I don’t see the status quo changing much.

January 17, 2005 @ 7:21 pm | Comment

Caliboy, we are in agreement. That’s why I said Deng triumphed with his message, To get rich is glorious. And I can’t say I blame the average up-and-coming citizen in China — they are tasting success and relative prosperity for the first time; why throw it away for a pipe dream, especically considering what happened the last time?

January 17, 2005 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

It’s hard to know what people think, IMO. I meanm, how many times have you been asked or asked yourself, where is the outrage here in the States over Iraq or Abu Ghraib or Bush’s latest atrocity (Iran, anyone?)? And it’s not that there isn’t plenty of outrage. It’s just that we seem to have lost faith that protesting it does any good. Or maybe too many of us feel as though we have too much to lose by doing so. The beauty of “to get rich is glorious” is its cynicism, that whole attitude that it doesn’t matter what we do, it won’t make a difference, so we might as well take care of our own selves and our own little world.


January 17, 2005 @ 10:03 pm | Comment

I just saw a newsbyte on CNN (headline story, fronting Insight) this noon, so perhaps the blackout is over. The Chinese deeply desire stability as much as or even more than prosperity, and I think the overwhelming and largely unsaid (unless you ask) Chinese sentiment is to let Tianamen lie. What good is democracy in the chaos of instability? We’ve only to look at Iraq for the next few weeks to find out. Happy MLK day and as I noted on Crackpot Chronicles on the update of my own Zhao post, let’s think about how short we fall of our own leaders’ dreams.

January 17, 2005 @ 10:10 pm | Comment

I disagree with the idea that, had Zhao stayed in power, there might be more political liberalization. Too often the reality of who Zhao was gets blurred because of the image of him toward the end of the events in 1989. He wasn’t an extreme or drastic reformer nor was he any kind of democrat. As he saw the tide go against him, he moved further and further toward the students, because it was his only available play, it was calculated. The current generation of Chinese youth know absolutely nothing about who he was or what he stood for, even without the tightened media, I doubt this event would cause many to take notice on campuses around China.

January 17, 2005 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

Regarding Hu Jintao and hopes that he might be a moderate reformer: wouldn’t that be a mistake on Jiang Zemin’s part if he were? Presumably Jiang wants Hu to carry on his own legacy. It seems strange that he would appoint a reformer if he himself was opposed to reform.

January 17, 2005 @ 11:51 pm | Comment

“to get rich is glorious” is not only Deng’s message, it was Zhao’s message as well. I don’t see how anyone can see it as a cynical message given the social context in China at the time. A different translation that would more accurately reflect all its connotations in the Chinese social context of the time is “there is no shame in working to improve your life”. Keep in mind that peasants used to get labelled capitalist roaders and struggled against for things like raising a couple of hens and selling the eggs or growing vegetables in the backyard of their house or doing any other possible economic activity outside of the control of the government. “to get rich is glorious” lifted the stigma that used to be placed on people who tried to improve their own lives.

BTW, Zhao was never much of a political reformer. Most of his career was spent dealing with economic matters. He might have harbored some liberal political ideas, but that was never his top priority.

January 18, 2005 @ 12:01 am | Comment

China doesn’t need drastic democratic reform … and if it was attempted, the negative predictions the communist government makes would probably come true. What it needs are long term thinkers at the helm who have the vision to start China on a 20 year transition phase, in which different levels of local government are gradualled opened to free elections, and gradual reform of the selection process for the NPC etc … I know it sounds very old fashioned, but it might not be a bad idea to have something like a property or education qualification before you were allowed to vote … some scaled system that would gradually allow a greater % of the population to vote with each election. Say, communist party members only, then party members and owners of property worth RMB1million, plus PhD holders. Then RMB500,000, plus masters holders. Initial elections for city councils and mayors. Then for provincial level government. Then for a % of NPC delegates, that gradually increased.
Not necessarily like this, but something that promises that gradually everyone will get to vote, but which gives the country years to adapt to a new way of thinking about political selection, and which gives candidates a chance to gain experience. If you try to go for an abrupt change from one system to another, you’re going to end up with a dismal failure like what happened in 1911-1913 … Sun Yixian (Yatsen) had the right idea with plans for different phases … what a shame it was never really attempted.

January 18, 2005 @ 12:12 am | Comment


Hu Jintao was not Jiang Zemin’s choice as successor. Hu was chosen by Deng Xiaoping to be Jiang Zemin’s successor. This is the reason for the widespread rumors of tension between the 2 man. As powerful as Jiang seemed, he couldn’t change Hu’s status as designated successor even years after Deng’s death. Incidentally, Jiang was not Deng’s choice to lead the party after Tiananmen. He was forced on Deng by other party elders led by the conservative Chen Yun.

January 18, 2005 @ 12:30 am | Comment

Okay, yes, my characterization of “to get rich is glorious” as a cynical sentiment is really not appropriate to the time in which it was coined. I remember arguing with a lot of RCPers in the States at that time that it was really unfair to criticize people for wanting to better their lives and live decently and in some marginal comfort. But what about today? I think the slogan has come to mean something very different. It reminds me far too much of the ethos here in the United States, a sort of turbo-capitalism that benefits the few at the expense of the many, a dismantling of social safety nets and any sense of the common good. We bribe people with cheap consumer goods and lots of entertainment in the hopes that they won’t wake up and notice that they have no real ownership of their own lives, while at the same time mouthing lies about the benefits of privatization and “the ownership society”. Democracy and the rule of law are supposed to be the bulwarks against this sort of economic tyranny; I worry we are losing these essential protections out of some combination of apathy, lack of education and fear.

But maybe that’s just me.

January 18, 2005 @ 12:34 am | Comment

Filthy Stinking No.9 (FSN9)’s point makes sense.

to be honest, many advocators of democracy here in china are “ye gong hao long”-style armchair politicians, never be interested in any forms of democracy practice.

i can’t find any reason china should go to a F1 racing before she gains some sort of recing experience.

this kind of gradual “learning by doing” will do a lot of good to china.

January 18, 2005 @ 1:00 am | Comment

it will be much easier for mainland chinese to create and adopt to the mechanism like the voting system, but much harder for chinese to learn the true spirit of democracy.

i have to admit that many elements in democracy are not consisitent with traditional chinese culture. that will be a long and painful learning process

January 18, 2005 @ 1:06 am | Comment

unlike FSN9, i believe the limited scaled learning should start from those poor and uneducated, as soon as the tough part of the population get to know how to operate, the rest will be easy.

another reason is that practice from this part will generate great benefits which can show to other people as road models.

January 18, 2005 @ 1:11 am | Comment

A response from a Beijing-native too young to remember Zhao:

(Golf course is referring to one of Zhao’s hobbies)

Note you need a proxy to access Blogspot if in China.

I think Zhao is the last CCP leader whose life and death can stir some emotion among at least some Chinese. Even this is limited, so far as I notice. After all, 15 years has passed, and CCP has successfully re-written history. Even in this information age, I have to admit that Orwellian regime still has an upper hand.

January 18, 2005 @ 4:31 am | Comment

Free, free at last.

This is the short message sent by Wang Yannan, Zhao Ziyang’s daughter, announcing Zhao’s death to friends through cellphone.

I cannot think of a more fitting word to commemorate the 2005 Martin Luther King Day.

January 18, 2005 @ 5:45 am | Comment

Speaking of June 4th, remember the patriotic hero from Taiwan Hou De Jian, who went on a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and helped rescue a lot of the students from the square in the morning of June 4th, 1989. He was born in Taiwan, but got arrested by the Taiwanese government for illegal entry.

January 18, 2005 @ 6:58 am | Comment

“After all, 15 years has passed, and CCP has successfully re-written history. Even in this information age, I have to admit that Orwellian regime still has an upper hand.”

Did CCP successfully rewrite history, or did China successfully transfer herself to a better society?

Ethnic Uighur Chinese student, Wuer Kaixi was one of the famous leaders of the 6/4 movement. Read what he had to say about China 10 years after Tiananmen from PBS.

WUER KAIXI: “China has changed enormously — in many ways, reflecting the dream, the call, the slogans that have been shouted out ten years ago by students. We wanted a market economy. Now we have it. We wanted freer society. We wanted a free society. But we have a freer society today.”

January 18, 2005 @ 7:24 am | Comment

not very well written due to my “broken english”, but i think you can get my point

January 18, 2005 @ 7:33 am | Comment

Sad to see how many people here think chinese are not ready for democracy. Everyone’s ready for democracy. That’s the excuse of the despots and a sort of racist thought.


January 18, 2005 @ 7:49 am | Comment

JR, there’s no question they have a freer societry, but consider what it was forty years ago, that doesn’t say much! They are still blacking out the news in an attempt to control your minds, and they will still arrest you if you write about political freedom on the Internet or elsewhere. Progress is great, but when it comes to freedom and human rights, there’s a long way to go, as we’ve discussed many times.

January 18, 2005 @ 8:32 am | Comment

You can probably build a reasonably solid argument about China not being ready for elections in the immediate future.

However, there’s no excuse for muffling the media and the internet.

January 18, 2005 @ 8:36 am | Comment


i think democracy is most useful in “preventing the worst to happen”.

if you want to get the most potential and goods from people by using democracy, it becomes a fine tool that requires its users many qualities, like tolerance, the respect for procedure, knowledge, rule of law, etc. all of these qualities need time to develop.

it’s nothing to do with racism. britain spent almost hundred years to give the voting rights to all its people, and so is the states. i am not saying china should slow down the pace or use this as an excuse, but i see SFN9’s point makes a lot of sense.

there are some litttle racing cars in china, it’s important for chinese just practice the small ones before they get to compete in F1.

January 18, 2005 @ 8:46 am | Comment

I had high personal respect for Wuer Kaixi, and I still do today.

As a moderate, Wuer Kaixi did not asked then premier Li Peng for a national election, but a humble request: allow college students freely associate themselves and form their own student union.

15 years after, his wish is not granted yet.

January 18, 2005 @ 8:50 am | Comment


you are right, media policy here is just stupid.

i will post some funny pics to show how chinese install their sat-dishes at home. very funny.

January 18, 2005 @ 8:50 am | Comment

I think it should be self-evident but in many comments it looks like it isn’t: CCP oppose democracy not because it think chinese people aren’t ready for elections. CCP oppose democracy because democracy would mean the end of its absolute power. Don’t confuse.

January 18, 2005 @ 8:51 am | Comment

Just like what is happening on the human rights issue.

China’s government boasts ‘many progress’ in human rights improvement, but just as watchdog HRW recently points out, China’s government itself is the gross human rights violator.

In Chinese, we call it yu3 hu3 mou2 pi2.

January 18, 2005 @ 9:00 am | Comment

both the words “zhao” and “ziyang” are filtered in the china daily forums. posts that contain those words will not be passed through.

the moderators have loosened up a lot in the past year, and this is one of the most strict i’ve seen them.

one of the moderators is also a china daily editor, and commented before that zhao was never under house arrest, but was being protected from foreign media. that same person also said they were in tiananmen square during the protests.

see one post that was left up:
“why censorship leads to instability”

January 18, 2005 @ 9:29 am | Comment

For those who believe their clinging to power justifies using tanks rolling over unarmed civilians, censorship does not deserve a footnote.

American public needs to be better informed so as to decide whether this most despicable dictatorship in the world is a ‘normal trading partner’ of US or an international pariah.

January 18, 2005 @ 9:37 am | Comment

I’m always amused to hear from people that economic sanctions will somehow lead to some sort of dramatic political revolution.

January 18, 2005 @ 7:45 pm | Comment

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