China's potential future as a democracy depends on how its official history regards Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party chief who died on Monday after 15 years under house arrest.
Unfortunately, the People's Daily, the party's newspaper, buried news of his death in a one-sentence item where it could be easily missed. Police also made sure dissidents wouldn't use his passing to rally for democracy.
Outside official circles, however, Zhao will be remembered as the leader who showed some sympathy for the 1989 pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, and who helped create market freedoms that have boosted China's economy ten- fold since then. For opposing the military slaughter of hundreds of protesters, Zhao was ousted and then kept out of public sight.
Those protests began after the passing of another democracy-leaning party chief, Hu Yaobang, who was also ousted in 1987 after student protests.
Urban prosperity since 1989 has reduced the desire for democracy among China's elite. But officials still worry about rising worker and peasant protests. Without political freedoms, their resentment toward officials can only find an outlet in further unrest, resulting in more violent suppression.
After Zhao's death, the government reiterated that it was right to end the 1989 protests for the sake of stability. But stability can be won in the long run only if officials apologize for that crackdown and allow elections.