Zhao Ziyang in Tiananmen


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the bloody suppression of the protesters in the Tiananmen Square. The march for democracy was met with a stony opposition from the elders of the Chinese communist party but its general secretary Zhao Ziyang was not among this group of ultra-hardliners.

Urging dialogue with the students, he futilely argued against martial law in the country home of Chairman Deng Xiaoping. So, at near midnight on May 19th, as hard-liners were finalizing their plans to crush the protests — which had swelled to include more than a million demonstrators in the preceding 48 hours, Zhao and his hardliner rival Li Peng walked out of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The hardliners had won, but the students thought the otherwise when Zhao appeared in front of them. They thought the government had backed down and that they had won. But Zhao had a different message. Stooping with fatigue, and with tears in his eyes, he walked into the throngs of students and spoke to student leaders through a bullhorn.”We have come too late,” he said, urging students to leave the square, to “treasure their lives”, to end their hunger strike, to help calm things down. Few heeded his words. Few hours later, the martial law was declared and troops all over the country were summoned to Peking. However, it was not until early June that the tanks and troops were sent in too crush the Tiananmen protests.

When tanks rolled by, Zhao was already under house arrest. The impromptu midnight foray was Zhao’s last public appearance. Subsequent snapshots that were leaked out over the years showed the gradual aging of the moderate man whose economic policies helped create the modern China; yet, he remained under house arrest until his death in 2005, silenced but never forgotten. As the Gorberchev China never had, Zhao almost had the last laugh–not only does the modern China operate as he envisioned in the 80s, but he also managed to keep a secret memoirs which vindicated his memory during his house-arrest. This memoirs (see TIME for how exactly he kept them) were released last week under the title, “Prisoner of the State: the Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang“. For China’s leaders, Zhao has proved to be as dangerous in death as he was in life.

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