Beijing needlessly anxious about Zhao

He may have been hailed for helping to engineer China's economic reform and standing with pro-democracy student protesters, but last weekend's funeral of former premier Zhao Ziyang means little to Zhi Qi.

    Zhao had begged protesters to leave before tanks rolled in

    While some have laid wreaths outside Zhao's house in homage to the man who in 1989 sided with the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy student demonstrators, Zhi, a 24-year-old graphics designer, barely knew him.

    "I know his place in history was short but towards 1989 in general I have no feelings, very little idea at all," said Zhi. "There is no point taking an interest in politics anyway, all the newspaper are the same, all false, praising everything that happens."

    A voice of China's new generation, Zhi is not alone in his political apathy. The 15 1/2 years since Zhao's last public appearance - on Tiananmen Square unsuccessfully imploring the demonstrators to leave before the soldiers and tanks were sent in - have seen China develop out of all recognition.

    A different China

    A decade of strong economic growth, urban regeneration and the nascent signs of an emerging middle class have led to today's young being more focused on individual advancement than heady political idealism.

    "For everyone though, life has moved on. I have a car, house and family. Some of us mention the old days but most don't. They want to forget about the past"

    Sheng Qi, artist and ex-protester who fled to London in 1989 but returned to Beijing in the 1990s

    "Look at our history, our culture.

    We cannot let our government collapse believing a new political system will appear overnight. If people were to take to the streets against the government I would not join them, it's too naive and it can't solve any problems," believes 23-year-old Han (she asked not to use her full name), a student at Tsinghua, China's leading university.

    The days of what Chinese political theorist Wang Hui recently called "the end of the socialist movement of the twentieth century", is a distant memory.

    "There is nothing really to say. His death brings back memories that flash before me. It is all like a dream. Now I wake up in a different world," says Sheng Qi, an artist and former pro-democracy protester who fled to London at the end of 1989 before returning to Beijing in the late 1990s.

    "For everyone though, life has moved on. I have a car, house and family. Some of us mention the old days but most don't. They want to forget about the past."

    Nervous crackdown

    Yet while the passing of time has rendered 1989 an anachronism for some, and a blurred past for others, events surrounding Zhao's funeral suggest that the final chapter on Tiananmen Square has yet to be written.

    In the fortnight between his death and the funeral, well-known dissidents in Beijing were not permitted to leave their houses (and according to reports from AFP, one resident's rights campaigner from Shanghai was badly beaten while travelling to the funeral).

    Not everyone has forgotten
    Zhao's contributions to China

    Guests to the Babaoshan

    Revolutionary Cemetery where the service was held were limited, newspaper coverage was strictly controlled and Zhao's ashes were not buried alongside other party leaders.

    Those that did try to protest tended to do so from the comfort of their own homes -online.

    Eulogies posted in internet chatrooms - a common means of airing public grievances in China - tended to be deleted by censors, prompting more messages condemning the censors.

    "It all betrays a certain sense of insecurity on the part of the leadership," said professor Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.

    "When any Communist Party leader dies there will be printed an official assessment of his life. The aim here was to stifle any voices that might call for a reassessment of his career, and so by default a reassessment of Tiananmen Square and the whole question of political reform," said Cheng.

    No new assessment

    Zhao's assessment, issued on the day of the funeral, still said that he had made "serious mistakes", although it did recognise his contribution towards pioneering rural economic reforms in the early 1980s.

    "It all betrays a certain sense of insecurity on the part of the leadership... The aim here was to stifle any voices that might call for a reassessment of his [Zhao's] career, and so by default ... the whole question of political reform"

    Joseph Cheng, 
    political science professor, 
    City University of Hong Kong

    Sticking to a long held line on Zhao, the assessment gave no indication of the divisions within the Communist Party that may have tried to have Zhao's legacy revised says Gilles Guiheux of the French Research Centre on Contemporary China.

    "The [Chinese Communist] Party is so afraid of opening the box. They are afraid that revealing these divisions in public would only weaken the party so it must appear to take a united stand," he said.

    Revisions on Tiananmen have long been called for, often in re-labelling the hundreds, perhaps thousands of those that died as martyrs or heroes, rather than criminals.

    A revision, however, has always appeared unlikely while some of Tiananmen's main protagonists, such as former premier Li Peng, are still alive. Nor does it appear, experts say, to make sense to reopen an old controversy at a time of growing social unrest.

    Current social unrest

    While many subscribe to the unwritten contract of political authoritarianism in return for economic gain, the upwardly sloping growth curve has not benefited all citizens.

    Zhao's death comes at a time of
    growing social unrest in China

    Polarisation of wealth has

    grown (some estimates say to as high as a ratio of one wealthy to six poor in some areas) and protests involving tens of thousands are now not uncommon.

    In 2003, according to government figures, there were around 58,000 "civic disturbances" involving more than 3 million people and by most estimates such incidents see no sign of abating.

    "There are many conflicts in the countryside now and there are factors of instability," said Chen Xiwen, a leading government policy adviser on agriculture.

    Late last year martial law was declared in parts of central Henan province after ethnic clashes between the minority Hui Muslims and Han Chinese who make up 96% of China's population and protests in November over dam construction in Western Sichuan province drew crowds of up to 50,000-100,000.

    In China, says Zhi Qi, there is an expression: "If you win you are a king, if you lose you are a thief."

    It would appear that the saying is appropriate for Zhao.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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