What Zhao Ziyang Meant by 'Reform'

A commentary by Bao Tong
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Bao Tong shows a photo of his former boss former Zhao Ziyang at his home in Beijing in a file photo.
Bao Tong shows a photo of his former boss former Zhao Ziyang at his home in Beijing in a file photo.

Today is the ninth anniversary of Zhao Ziyang's death. His last 16 years were spent in illegal detention. He had long since been swept off the political stage and away from public life by the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party, but he still lives on in the hearts of ordinary people.

The people remember Zhao Ziyang, because he treated the people like people.

Not treating people like people is a common disease, a cancer that runs through the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping didn't treat people like people. So how did they treat them? Like "the masses." Like enemies.

Those who were willing to be led by Mao and Deng, obedient to them, and who are willing to jump through hoops and leap into battle on their command were regarded as "the masses."

But they were expected to sacrifice all their rights, to freedom and to life, not to mention their conscience, to the cause of realizing the party's dreams.

If they refused, they would be called "enemies of the people," who should be overthrown and sentenced to perdition along with all their descendants.

So now there is no peace throughout the land, as a result of the mischief wrought by this dual structure of enmity and the urban-rural divide.

These were the special products of the binary system of Mao and Deng, and their divisive and damaging effects are still being played out everywhere, all the time.

Committed to reforms

The Chinese Communist Party has only produced a handful of leaders capable of escaping the "l'etat, c'est moi" vision of one-party domination. Zhao Ziyang was one of them. The Cultural Revolution [1966-1976] enlightened him.

Zhao was committed to reforms, in the sense of getting rid of things rather than improving on them. And one of the things he wanted to get rid of was the economic and political system that had been visited on the Chinese people by Mao Zedong.

Mao Zedong believed that farmers and industry should all be part of a nationally planned economy, while Zhao was in favor of maintaining the autonomy of farmers and businesses.

Mao and Deng both played around with the concepts of "democratic" and "dictatorship," while Zhao made the unprecedented criticism that democratic socialism actually seemed pretty fake, while pseudo-democratic capitalism actually seemed quite real.

Zhao's deregulation and decentralization put everything in its right place, and worked particularly hard to turn the contemporary notion of who were the masters and who were the servants on its head.

During the 1970s, he took the lead in the righting of miscarriages of justice from the counter-insurgency in Tibetan regions of Sichuan, arguing that "ethnic questions are ultimately a question of social class," showing great courage in the pursuit of interracial harmony.

In 1989, he was in favor of resolving the demands of the students for democracy and an end to corruption along the lines of democracy and the rule of law.

If there had been no intervention from the Chairman of the Central Military Commission [Deng Xiaoping], this could have been a decisive first step on the path to reform.

The fate of the people

We could start by thinking of Zhao Ziyang as someone who treated the people as people, who treated markets like markets, and citizens as citizens, even though this was regarded as heresy under the one-party system.

But neither Deng nor the party was happy with [this].

But we're not just talking about the outcome for a single individual, but also the fate of the entire Chinese people.

The Chinese Communist Party leadership is now calling for fairness and justice, and everyone is paying attention.

Just like the Constitution, you can kill justice and fairness with empty talk.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.





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