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Zhao Ziyang Described as Reluctant Reformist Warrior

The death of former Chinese Premier and Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who was seen as a reformer and a moderate, raises questions about his legacy. Mr. Zhao opposed the use of force to clear protesting students from Tiananmen Square in 1989. He lost a Chinese leadership power struggle, was ousted from his position and spent his last 15 years under house arrest in Beijing.

Twenty-one years ago this month, President Reagan welcomed Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang to the White House. "Mr. President and Mrs. Reagan, ladies and gentlemen, at the beginning of the new year, I have brought the American people the cordial greetings and good wishes of the one billion Chinese people," he said.

In his comments, President Reagan pointed to Mr. Zhao's role as an important supporter of China's economic modernization. "China is now embarked on an exciting experiment designed to modernize the economy and quadruple the value of its national economic output by the year 2000. Premier Zhao, you eloquently described a key to achieving that end when you said that progress, and I quote, 'lies in our efforts to emancipate our thinking in a bold way, to carry out reform with determination, to make new inventions with courage, and to break with the economic molds and conventions of all descriptions which fetter the development of productive force," he said.

Mr. Zhao's 1984 visit to Washington did not have the same impact on U.S.-China relations as a visit by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979. But UCLA political science professor Richard Baum says Mr. Zhao did present what he called a "simpatico" [sympathetic] image. "He seemed more like us, plus he was mild-mannered, gentle, a true reformer at heart. So, I think he went a long way toward easing some of the anxieties that had existed in the United States about this new generation of Chinese leaders,"

It is this penchant for reform and political liberalization, though, that ended up getting Mr. Zhao into trouble back home. The Chinese leader was unceremoniously ousted from his office in 1989, as the government was preparing to use tanks to clear protesters on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Zhao's last public appearance was on the Square in May, when he apologized to protesters that he was too late. Two weeks later, the Chinese army brutally crushed the demonstrations, killing an estimated several hundred people in the process.

"I think Zhao Ziyang will go down in Chinese history as a reluctant warrior - someone who rather belatedly picked up the challenge, the cudgel of political reform, and was unable, unfortunately, to prevent the bloodshed that occurred at [around] Tiananmen [Square]," said Professor Baum.

History professor Dorothy Ko, from Barnard College, calls Mr. Zhao a fearless reformer who was ahead of his time. "I think that many Chinese intellectuals I know think of him [Zhao] as a very innocent victim of power struggle, and that he got the right ideas that were actually all implemented in the past 10 years or so. So, he is no longer so far ahead of his times. In fact, a lot of his visions have been realized, perhaps other than internal reform of the Communist Party," she said.

She adds that since Mr. Zhao was ousted, China has actually developed in the direction he set out. "I just feel that China has moved on so much in this past 15 years. So much has changed, and a lot of it for the better. So, I think that Zhao Ziyang should be really happy - even though, perhaps, not for his own personal circumstances, but for the fact that China has developed," she said.

As for Mr. Zhao's political reforms, UCLA professor Richard Baum says they are "the key to China's successful transition toward a more open and pluralistic political system." He adds, "I think Chinese leaders recognize that their system is broken and needs fixing. At the last party central committee plenum last fall, the key document issued talked about the need to improve governance in China. And one clear and sure way of improving governance is to follow the path mapped out by Zhao Ziyang."

Professor Baum says if the Chinese government revives Mr. Zhao's political reforms, though, it also has to consider rehabilitating Mr. Zhao, himself. And, any rehabilitation of the Chinese leader is closely linked to an official reassessment of the entire Tiananmen Square crackdown, which the government has labeled a counter-revolutionary rebellion.

So, Professor Baum concludes, some sort of reassessment is likely to come in the near future - just not right now.