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Jan 17, 2005 11:41 pm

Zhao Ziyang and Victor Hugo

As we have said, the great city resembles a piece of artillery; when it is loaded, it suffices for a spark to fall, and the shot is discharged. In June, 1832, the spark was the death of General Lamarque.
-- Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
"Lamarque is dead." With the notice of the passing of this beloved, heroic figure, the musical goes into high gear (in the book his funeral takes place first, and honor guard troops fire on agitated crowds, then barricades are invoked, but that takes several chapters and way too many extras). The call to revolution goes out, barricades are erected, and the students take up arms expecting that"the people" will hear their call to virtue and freedom and join them. Ultimately, though they are spirited and pretty numerous, considering, the government crushes their little uprising and the status quo returns. We've been listening to that this week, and the echo of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising is somewhat ironic, given the news from China.

Zhao Ziyang is dead (in Asian fashion, the surname goes first, and personal name goes second), and the government is concerned that his death might be cause for popular protests, or even another 1989-style standoff. Zhao was a nearly charter member of the CCP, a cagey survivor of the Maoist era excesses, an economic technocrat and a Deng Xiaoping protégé who rose to the CCP Sec-Gen in the mid-80s. He was a pioneer of economic liberalization in his regional postings, and he brought that policy with him to the central committees when his star rose: he's considered one of the primary architects of China's economic policy through the 1980s, and his fundamental market-oriented reforms live on today. This made him immensely popular ("If you want to eat, go and look for [zhou] Ziyang" went a late '70s aphorism) and powerful (he implemented bureaucratic cuts). But he ran afoul of Deng in 1989, and has been out of power ever since. Zhao Ziyang was widely and correctly perceived to be sympathetic to the goals of the 1989 protesters -- meritocracy and loosening of some party controls -- and opposed to the use of force against them. The actual crushing of the protests was followed by Zhao's dismissal and the rise of the relatively unknown Jiang Zemin to the position of Deng's right hand. His very existence, the potential that he could be a rallying point for anti-government protest, has been something of a thorn in the side of the Chinese oligarchy. Now he's dead, and they're really worried.

Why? Well, there have been a number of funerals in recent Chinese history which turned into counter-oligarchic political events. The 1989 Tiananmen square protests were sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang, who had been removed from power after allowing the 1986-7 pro-democracy protests to gain momentum. The death of Zhou Enlai in 1976 had sparked demonstrations in Tiananmen square as well as elsewhere, including criticism of Mao and the Cultural Revolution that resulted in the (ultimately short-term) purging of Mao-critic Deng Xiaoping from power.

One aspect of totalitarian states, into which category China would certainly like to fall, is their desire to control and plan everything to the benefit of the state. But the vagaries of Chinese politics over the last half century have left a number of Zhao-like figures in limbo: good, even popular, servants of people and party, who get tossed aside due to political shifts or perceived failures. The government can keep them out of office, in the country, out of the public view... until they die. They can't schedule death. Nor can they entirely make people forget the service, or the abandonment, of these figures. [update: They're gonna try hard, though.]

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