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China crops its history

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 2005



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.

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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."

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