Ousted Chinese Leader Zhao Ziyang Dies at 85

May 19, 1989. Zhao Ziyang addresses the student hunger strikers through a megaphone at dawn, in one of the buses on Tiananmen Square in which protesters sheltered. Photo: AFP/Files

HONG KONG—The ousted former secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, has died at the age of 85.

A liberal-minded reformer intent on making the Party more transparent, democratic, and accountable, Zhao is best remembered outside China for his sympathetic stance towards the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square.

He was removed from all official posts when then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping decided the mass protests had gone far enough and sent in People's Liberation Army troops to crush the demonstrations. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, died in the bloodshed.

"No sincere person, in or outside the Party, who really understands the history of the 1980s in China, could fail to cherish a deep respect for Zhao Ziyang—a deep respect which wells up from the heart, and which has to remain suppressed there," Zhao's former secretary Bao Tong wrote in an essay on the 15th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown.

Official verdict still stands

China's new generation of leaders under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have ignored calls for the official verdict of "counterrevolutionary turmoil" to be removed from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Zhao remained under house arrest at his Beijing home until he was hospitalized last week with a host of cardiac and respiratory problems.

In an unusual official nod to Zhao's legacy, the official Xinhua news agency reported his illness and death in English.

No sincere person...could fail to cherish a deep respect for Zhao Ziyang.

"Comrade Zhao Ziyang died of illness in a Beijing hospital Monday. He was 85," Xinhua said. "Comrade Zhao had long suffered from multiple diseases affecting his respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and had been hospitalized for medical treatment for several times," the agency said.

"His conditions worsened recently, and he passed away Monday after failing to respond to all emergency treatment," it said.

Zhao saw need for reform

In an essay on Zhao published on the 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown, Bao said his former boss had tried to reform the Party, realizing that the disasters of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) all stemmed from a lack of rule of law and democracy.

"These days, a lot of students have never heard of Zhao Ziyang," Bao wrote. "Zhao Ziyang was in charge of economic work at a time when China's economy was on the brink of collapse. Where was the solution? The solution lay in reforms."

"Zhao Ziyang had a strong loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. In all the 10 years I worked with him, I never once heard him talk about abolishing the Party's leadership. But his loyalty to the people was even stronger," Bao said.

While the Hu-Wen government appears to be attempting to resurrect parts of Zhao's plan in its emphasis on a "people-centered government," corruption is too far advanced at every level of government for the Party to govern itself.

Party tries to change from within

Among the most insistent calls from academics, lawyers and journalists within China have been for the removal of official controls on the media, and for greater judicial independence.

Zhao is survived by his wife, Liang Boqi—who fought with him in the war against Japan—as well as his four sons, daughter, and at least four grandchildren.


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