The death Monday of the former Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang seems unlikely
to spark an upsurge of reformist sentiment like the one that followed the death
of his popular predecessor, Hu Yaobang, in April 1989 - events that led directly
to the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown. Yet with or without the Zhao's
demise to remind them of the impermanence of political power, the leadership in
recent months has been displaying some distinct signs of nervousness.
What may worry President Hu Jintao and
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is not an upsurge in demands to revisit the verdict on
Tiananmen, or for a rehabilitation of Zhao Ziyang's role in 1989, but that some
of the conditions that led to the Tiananmen upheaval are again very much in
One might have expected that after the
consolidation of their power at the party plenum last year at the expense of
Jiang Zemin, Hu and Wen would have shown greater self-confidence by accepting
that the economic and social progress of the past dozen years has made it
necessary to liberalize further the political climate. But in fact the opposite
has happened. The climate for the news media has rapidly worsened, with
penalties meted out to those who dare to expose official corruption and
ineptitude, making editors extremely cautious of how and what is reported.
Suppression of the Internet has also increased.
Likewise there has been that sure sign of
nervousness: banging of the nationalist drum to take attention away from other
issues and emphasize ethnic pride and unity. One might have assumed that after
last month's electoral setback to President Chen Shui-bian's further push for
Taiwan's separate identity, Beijing would have rewarded Taiwan with some
comforting noises. Instead the leadership rolled out its antisecession
legislation, which is of little practical value but offensive to almost all of
Taiwan's people. It then added insult to injury by leaning on its puppet in Hong
Kong, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, to refuse a visa for the mayor of Taipei,
Ma Ying-jeou, the best presidential hopeful from the anti-independence
Similarly, an upsurge in nationalist
rhetoric toward Japan may have warmed the hearts of many mainlanders, but has
encouraged Japan to think more seriously about China's military might. An arms
race with Japan is more likely to benefit Japan's economy than China's. In the
same way, resistance to the more flexible currency policy urged by the United
States and others has become couched in nationalistic terms, most likely to the
detriment of sound economics.
Hu has also sought to dissociate himself
from Hong Kong's leader by publicly criticizing Tung's performance. This curious
comment on an official appointed and consistently backed by Beijing was scarcely
a sign of Hu's own self-assurance.
China's economy appears to be still
riding high, but not too high. Most economic forecasts remain favorable and the
city dwellers' incomes, in particular, continue to thrive. Yet this leadership,
though more attuned to the problems of the interior than was the ebullient Jiang
Zemin, seems not to notice that several of the conditions that led to Tiananmen
First, massive corruption and nepotism
are proving resistant to Beijing's invective. Corruption is inevitable given
China's political and economic structure, and may be tolerated for a while if
economic progress is sustained. But at some point there will come a reaction
from China's people.
Second, inflation may take hold again. It
will not be to the same extent as it was before Tiananmen, as economic
policymaking is now quite sophisticated. But rapid growth carries with it the
very real danger of loss of control.
Third, the reports of public disturbances
born of anger at corruption, abuses of power and income gaps have been on the
rise. They seem unlikely to lead to any focused opposition. But Chinese politics
has even more pronounced cycles than its economics, and a tendency to spring
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised,
though, that the still inexperienced team of Hu and Wen is refusing to allow
critical sentiments to flourish. History may reward the memory of Zhao Ziyang.
But for those focused on keeping themselves and their system in power today,
Zhao's death may be a reminder not of the merits of compromise, as he attempted
at Tiananmen, but the perils of not striking hard against critics.