The funeral service of the former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was held on the morning of January 29 at Babaoshan Cemetery in Beijing. Without mentioning Zhao’s background as former Premier, General Secretary of the CCP, or a key figure in China’s reform, the Xinhua News Agency published a brief obituary, which instead emphasized that Zhao “made serious mistakes in 1989.” With regard to the CCP’s handling of Zhao’s death, Epoch Times reporter Xin Fei interviewed Mr. Gao Wenqian, who is one of China’s most prominent official historians.
A former committee member of the CCP biography research center and leader for the Zhou Enlai Research Group, Mr. Gao co-authored several official biographical books in China, including Chronology of the Life of Zhou Enlai, Biography of Zhou Enlai, and Biography of Mao Zedong. He is also the author of the popular book Late Years of Zhou Enlai, which depicted the CCP’s inner workings with historical documents disputing official claims.
As a visiting scholar, Mr. Gao came to the U.S. and worked at the East Asian Research Institute of Columbia University, the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, and the Harvard University Fei Zhengqing Research Center.
Reporter: What do you think of the CCP’s handling of the purged CCP leader Zhao Ziyang?
Gao: It is not much different from what I expected, because I come from the CCP and have a good understanding of how it works. The “relaxed” period recently in China seemingly showed some concessions by the CCP, but it was just a ploy. The CCP often stresses “upholding principles” with “flexible tactics.” One such example is how it handled Mr. Zhao Ziyang’s death. As a part of “upholding principles,” they didn’t want to give any concessions.
Recently some international media speculated that Beijing was willing to concede to an extent. Actually, this was a tactic to fool Zhao’s family into cooperating, so that the CCP would have full control of the funeral services. Because Zhao’s family members are key players in the funeral, Beijing could not play the game without their cooperation. How did they get it? By manipulating the foreign media.
At the same time, China’s domestic press also spread a lot of rumors to deceive the international media and to distract its citizens and overseas Chinese. In the beginning, I thought there were three possibilities, and the most probable one would be no concession at all. My prediction ended up being confirmed.
Why didn’t they give in? It’s because the issue of Zhao Ziyang is a critical piece of the CCP’s history. Had they returned justice to Zhao by reversing their decision in 1989, more issues and questions would have emerged. First, who had ordered Zhao’s sixteen-year house arrest, from 1989 till his death? From Deng Xiaoping on down to the third generation CCP leadership, everyone is accountable for what happened to Zhao. Much like his bloody handling of the June 4th student movement, Deng will certainly be scrutinized by history for his handling of Mr. Zhao’s fate. Deng made two major mistakes. One was the June 4th incident, and the other was Zhao’s house arrest, which was the modern version of the Zhang Xueliang incident. A close follower of Deng Xiaoping, the third generation leader Jiang Zemin continued Zhao’s house arrest until he stepped down two years ago.
When Hu Jintao took over the reins, he could have resolved this by removing the house arrest in the name of “revolutionary humanitarism” for the elderly Zhao. Hu would have taken on little political risk, since under no circumstances would he have had to reverse the official decision on Zhao. Instead, Hu compounded the problems until it was too late to correct them.
When Zhao died, the authorities could have given him a fairer obituary, which would have been expected given Chinese tradition. Nevertheless, the CCP continued to take the hard line approach. They issued a one-sentence notice, and then started to limit and suppress most of the mourning activities. Most likely to their surprise, this attracted widespread attention from the international community. Many prominent leaders have expressed their respect and praise for Zhao, placing the CCP under great pressure. Even inside the CCP, many were unhappy with how the affair was handled.
Reporter: What do you think of the official Xinhua report, then?
Gao: It was a public smearing of Zhao Ziyang. This report was issued one and half hours after the funeral services began. Why were they in such a hurry to defame Zhao! Zhao’s refusal to endorse the violent suppression of the student movement back in 1989 was not a “serious mistake” at all. It was the most acclaimed and important act in his political career.
But let’s leave the political issue aside for now. According to Chinese tradition and culture, it is never right to defame someone after they have passed away. It was not necessary and no good to do this during Zhao’s funeral. As no media was allowed to cover the funeral except for the state-run Xinhua, it was able to do damage at will. The CCP leadership chose to shove aside respect for the dead, during Zhao’s funeral no less, in order to play down Zhao’s contributions and the massacre in 1989. I fully empathize with Zhao’s family. They had been stripped of hope and unjustly forced to endure grief and indignation.
To be honest, I was well prepared, because I knew they would not concede.
Nevertheless, what they did still surprised me. They first spread the rumor that they would concede, and later quickly published the official commentary on Zhao for his “serious mistake,” without even waiting for the funeral to end. It was truly shameless to manipulate the family that had just lost a loved one.
Reporter: What do you think are the impacts of this incident?
Gao: From the official news, it is obvious that the CCP made the decision way before the news release. The key message was that the authorities did not want to concede at all on this subject. This incident certainly reflects poorly on the images of the Hu-Wen fourth generation leadership. It did a lot of damage to the “people-focused” and “law-based” policy’s credibility. How can you treat the ordinary people well if you couldn’t even treat an elder statesman like Zhao Ziyang with the most basic decency?
During the funeral, an elderly person from Zhao’s hometown in Henan province came to mourn him. The police beat him and even injured his eye. This is just a horrifying, brutal act, quite telling of how the government intends to conduct itself.
The CCP’s handling of Zhao’s funeral spoke volumes on the Hu-Wen leadership team. It seems that they are intent on continuing the CCP’s tradition. If it continues to go down the same path, China’s future will be bleak, indeed.
Reporter: Do you think this incident is now finished or will it have long-term effects?
Gao: I believe this is not behind us yet. It just has been suppressed temporarily. Despite the deception carried out at Zhao’s funeral, more sensitive days are coming. Tomb-Sweeping Day is coming on April 5th, and the June 4th anniversary looms soon after that.
Although the CCP leadership can feel free to brutally suppress its own people, they are sitting atop a volcano and must be on pins and needles at every moment.