HONG KONG — When Britain's Margaret Thatcher signed the 1984 agreement handing Hong Kong over to China, the man she signed it with was one of China's brightest lights, reform-minded premier Zhao Ziyang. It was a moment of great hope, with lots of pride and a sense that China, after years under the yoke of Mao Zedong, would become a forward-looking, less extreme state. Yet official photos of that signing now blur or diminish Zhao, or crop him out entirely.
Zhao, who opposed the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on student protest in 1989, and whose ideas prefigured China's economic rise, is still airbrushed out of Chinese history. Four days after his passing, after living under house arrest in Beijing for 15 years, state media has still given only four lines of comment, run next to a weather map, on the death of "comrade" Zhao.
Now Beijing's effort to silence discussion about Zhao at home has jumped the mainland's borders and landed in the heart of Hong Kong. The city is the only place on Chinese soil where Zhao can be publicly remembered. But a request Tuesday for a minute of silence for Zhao in the parliament here was ruled unconstitutional by the assembly president - outraging pro-democracy lawmakers. Wednesday they stood quietly for a minute, anyway. That caused pro-Beijing members to walk out, shutting down the legislature for the first time ever.
Reformers in Hong Kong say the ruling against Zhao is further evidence that the spirit of Hong Kong's agreed-to special autonomy is being violated. Thursday feeling ran deep among democrats that the dispute underscores a serious cultural distance between Hong Kong and Beijing, as the two sides get to know each other.
"I don't understand this ruling at all. As far as expressive politics in Hong Kong are concerned, this [moment of silence] is an act of humanity and basic decency," says Margaret Ng, a lawyer and parliamentarian.
Yet the repressive handling of Zhao's death raises even more basic questions inside China: Can China, which often berates Japan for a lack of honesty about World War II, develop the normal exchange of views that open societies enjoy?
When depicted in economic terms, experts say, China appears more liberal and open. Yet as a political entity, recent behaviors suggest the Communist Party and the new leadership of Hu Jintao may be more authoritarian than once thought.
The Tiananmen event was a watershed that set China on the path to economic reform, leaving political changes to be settled later. Those issues run directly through Zhao's life and role as a No. 1 leader in late 20th-century China. Scholars outside China, diplomats, and exiled intellectuals almost universally see Zhao as a figure who advocated both political and economic reform, and whose historical place must be dealt with at some point. But Chinese officials say their world-beating growth rate vindicates Zhao's arrest.
Zhao's famed willingness to go down into the square to meet students in 1989 sealed his legacy as beloved of the people - one reason the atmosphere in Beijing Thursday was said to be tense, and why Tiananmen Square had been cleared for the first time since the Falun Gong protests several years ago. Some sources indicate that Beijing officials are now considering a modest state funeral.
Apart from Tuesday's four-line obituary, no mention of Zhao is heard on state TV or in newspapers. Chinese Internet chat rooms are being monitored and messages regarding Zhao erased. Earlier this week, Chinese hoping to visit and pay respects at Zhao's home were turned away or asked to register with state police.
Thursday, both the Zhao home and Tiananmen Square were awash in plainclothes security. Police were no longer registering Chinese visiting the home, but a team was inside filming every visitor. Zhao's aid, Bao Tong, remains under house arrest.
The US State Department issued a glowing remembrance of Zhao through spokesman Richard Boucher, calling him a "a champion of reform at a time of momentous change in China.... We well remember that in 1989, in Tiananmen Square, Mr. Zhao went directly to the people of China, listened to their views, and engaged with them in a discussion about their desire for democracy."
Zhao was not well educated, but had enormous practical intelligence, points out biographer David Shambaugh. Zhao was an originator of ideas. In the period after Mao's brutal cultural revolution, Zhao coined new definitions and theories, innovated reform proposals, and pushed China closer to world norms in both the political and economic sphere.
Zhao argued that in "early phases" of revolutionary socialism, which China was undoubtedly in, the "tools of capitalism" were acceptable. Earning and using dividends wasn't evil, he suggested. Creating productive capacity and goods that can be sold, allowing for reinvestment, can be good.
He was an early force behind dividing the Communist Party from the state government. He also argued that the work of factory managers ought not be dictated by party bosses. While Zhao didn't dare suggest that private ownership was acceptable in the early '80s, he did originate something called the "responsibility system," which allowed ordinary Chinese to hold and develop property - freeing them to create the plethora of private shops and restaurants now found all over Chinese cities.
It is partly due to Zhao's wealth-creating reforms that many younger Chinese today are not interested in politics, or protest. Yet there are also constantly reinforced authoritarian strictures against organized public expression outside party channels. Most protest brings arrest.
This week Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, one of the editors of the Tiananmen Papers, told the BBC that "In China people can sometimes not be mentioned for years and years, but it turns out that they are in everyone's mind.... Zhao still stands for the downtrodden, for the idea of justice."
In Hong Kong, the ban on the silent moment upset even moderate columnists like Frank Ching, who called China an "abnormal country," though his comments focused more on the party. "The party remains above the state and not subject to the law. Since the party is paramount, this means that the most powerful body in China is, in essence, a lawless body. It can incarcerate anyone it wants to, from the lowliest peasant in the countryside to the highest official such as Zhao, without ... due process."
Martin Lee is founding chair of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong and an elder statesman for the city. A well-known reformer outside Hong Kong, Mr. Lee testified before the US Congress about the city's erosion of autonomy from Beijing. This week Lee was part of a controversial decision to stand for a moment of silence on behalf of former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang in the parliament. He spoke with the Monitor about that decision:
The President of the parliament ruled that the moment of silence was illegal. Do you agree?
I don't agree. The Basic Law doesn't forbid this because there have been so many such precedents for the remembrance of colleagues and friends who have passed on. On Feb. 26, 1997, we observed a minute of silence for [Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping.
Why did you decide to go ahead with the moment of silence for Zhao?
We felt under the circumstances that such an act was the only thing we could do. Hong Kong is the only city in China where it is possible to observe a minute of silence like this, and we knew we were following precedent.
Legally, we did not feel that such silence was forbidden. But since the [president] ruled against it, we knew it would be improper to stand. So we were driven to make a choice, as democrats, between our conscience and the ruling. We met and all decided, really right away, we would stand. As I look at it on the day after, I think it was right. If we hadn't done it, I would have regretted that for the rest of my life.
The period in the 1980s when Deng and Zhao worked out the handover was seen as one of great promise.
Yes. That period was also one of total secrecy because we were all worried the British would betray us and keep Hong Kong. So when the draft accord came out, it was not bad. It was well received, and many of us saw in it a possible bright future. We felt goodwill, and thought those feelings would be preserved. We saw a future that could be even better than we experienced under the British. We thought that Beijing would trust us, and allow Hong Kong to develop our democracy. It was not like today.