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Remembering and Forgetting Zhao Ziyang

So, at last former Chinese Premier and Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang has died. But the political agenda that he espoused while in office passed away long ago, on May 19, 1989, when he appeared in Tiananmen Square just before dawn to beg tearfully for the forgiveness of protesters. “I am very sorry,” he said to startled onlookers. “I have come too late.” After that, he existed more as an historical chimera than as a real person.

When his bizarre and unscheduled appearance in the square was broadcast on Central Chinese Television the next morning – during one of the last days of uncensored media coverage – people across China were stunned by this fleeting moment of all-too-human, official anguish. After all, Party leaders rarely evince their personal feelings in public, much less transgress the Party line as brazenly as Zhao did. Such individualism fit neither Leninist nor traditional Chinese proscriptions for behavior by a high official.

As the crackdown following those heady weeks of free expression and assembly came to its apocalyptic end on the night of June 3-4, Zhao vanished, sucked down the Party’s memory hole into which so many other leaders have vanished since China’s “socialist liberation.” To the discredit of the democratic world, hardly any head of state remonstrated on Zhao’s behalf, minimally demanding that some accounting be made for his illegal and immoral incarceration. Instead, Zhao was allowed to remain in suspended animation, under house arrest, conveniently forgotten like some cryogenically frozen celebrity with no hope of resurrection.

Zhao was not killed, but allowed to live in an old Beijing courtyard house with his family. He was let out from time to time, but under guard like a zoo animal, to go to some spa or to play solitary holes of golf, one of the many manifestations of “bourgeois liberalization” that his reform efforts allowed to leak through China’s once hermetic seal.