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The forgotten reformer

Interview: Lea Hedrich/shsJanuary 14, 2015

In 1989, China's reformist premier Zhao was removed from power and put under house arrest after the Tiananmen protests. He died from a stroke in 2005, but his name remains a taboo in China, says Eberhard Sandschneider.

China's former premier Zhao Ziyang smiles at a reception when he shakes hands with Vice President George Bush in Washington. (Photo: File/AP/dapd)
Image: AP

At the height of China's student-led democracy movement in 1989, the country's powerful Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang went to Tiananmen Square on May 19 and requested the hunger strikers to go home. He reportedly said, "I came too late." The next day, the government declared martial law and Zhao disappeared.

After the military crackdown on protesters in June, 1989, speculation was rife that Zhao had been stripped of power. A month later, he was ousted from the Communist Party. Zhao was placed under house arrest in Beijing until his death on January 17, 2005.

DW: What comes to your mind when you think of Zhao Ziyang?

Eberhard Sandschneider: Zhao was one of the founders of China's liberal economic policies. Together with another Chinese reformer, Deng Xiaoping, and the long-time Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, Zhao steered the early stages of the country's agricultural and industrial reforms. Unfortunately, the whole thing came to an inglorious end after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Eberhard Sandschneider
Sandschneider: 'Whoever speaks of Zhao must also speak about Tiananmen Square'Image: DGAP/dapd

How do you assess his role and contribution to the country?

We can't talk about the reforms and their impact on China, and also its rise as an economic power, without mentioning Zhao. After moving to Beijing in 1978, he quickly took responsibility for reforms alongside Hu Yaobang, seeking inspiration from Deng Xiaoping. He was prime minister at the time and thus responsible for the implementation of those policies.

It's been ten years since Zhao's death. During this time, the Chinese government tried to keep his name out of public memory. Do you think Zhao is still relevant in China, especially to the younger generation?

I am not sure about the younger generations as they usually don't remember former politicians given the fast pace of modern life. They were too young when Zhao Ziyang was an important figure in Chinese politics. But I think the older generation, which remembers the pre-reform period and the early stages of economic changes in China, is aware of Zhao's significance.

The fact that his contribution is not discussed in Chinese media has to do with the tragic events of 1989 and his subsequent overthrow. He remained determined under house arrest, and so the Chinese leadership is extremely careful not to make him a public hero.

Do you think that this year the government will treat him any differently, considering it will soon be the tenth anniversary of his death on January 17?

No, I do not see any reason why they should change their stance about him. Whoever speaks of Zhao must also speak about Tiananmen. Also, I don't think the Chinese government attaches special importance to his death.

Is Beijing not willing to discuss him because it fears the memory of the Tiananmen Square's pro-democracy movement might be reignited?

Of course, it is highly risky. In 1989, the pro-democracy students died in the symbolic political heart of the country. The events that followed caused instability in the whole of China and within the Communist Party. I think most Chinese politicians are happy that they got away with it without major long-term consequences. Also, it is not in the nature of the Party to acknowledge such critical events.

Dr. Eberhard Sandschneider has been the Director of the Research Institute at the German Council on Foreign Relations, or DGAP, since August 2003.