China crops its history
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.