"Comrade Zhao Ziyang died of illness in a Beijing hospital Monday. He was 85." That was all that China's state newspapers had to say about the death in late January of the man who many regard as the true father of China's economic reforms.
Zhao served as China's premier from 1980-87 and as titular head of the country from 1987-89. The last time he was seen in public was before dawn on May 19, 1989, when he made a tearful visit to protestors in Tiananmen Square and uttered the historic words: "I'm very sorry. I've come too late."
It later emerged that Zhao had just been fired by his former mentor – the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping – and other party elders, who imposed martial law on Beijing the next day and had Zhao placed under house arrest, where he remained until his death. On June 4, troops and tanks cleared the square as the world watched in horror. Zhao's death presented the leadership with a potentially difficult situation – China has a history of disturbances sparked by the death of a popular leader fallen from grace. But in the event, Zhao's funeral was held with little fanfare, and any repercussions seem to have been successfully avoided through a combination of political apathy among students, strict security in Beijing and a more optimistic social climate than in 1989, when the country was in the throes of high inflation and economic turmoil.
The international media remembers Zhao Ziyang as a hero of student protests and as an advocate of democratic reform, but there is evidence that prior to the 1989 protests, Zhao adhered to the "neo-authoritarian" school of thought, which holds that China is too big and diverse a nation to be governed through democracy, and needs a strong leader to guide it through its economic modernization.
What is not in any doubt is Zhao's role as an economic reformer. The above-9% annual growth rates that China has experienced since 1979 can be largely attributed to the proto-capitalist experiments with market forces that he instigated and championed, extrapolating from the first moves made by his mentor Deng Xiaoping.
Although born in Henan province, Zhao spent most of his pre-1980s career in provincial government in Guangdong. He focused on land reform issues and following the disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958- 1960 introduced a semblance of what would later become the "individual responsibility" system in agriculture. Zhao was purged for "revisionist" thinking during the Cultural Revolution and endured four years of forced labor. He was rehabilitated in 1971, and in 1975 was appointed party chief of Sichuan province, where he introduced reforms promoting individual responsibility and de-communization in agriculture.
These reforms emphasized private plots, private markets and production contracts for households, and allowed peasants to engage in light industry – all fundamental changes which Zhao later rolled out across the country, creating the seeds of the massive improvements visible today. The turmoil and excesses of the Cultural Revolution had ravaged the province's economy, but with the reforms it soon regained its role as a net food exporter. Zhao also experimented with incentive schemes in industry and soon caught the attention of Deng Xiaoping, who brought him to Beijing and installed him as prime minister in 1980.
Deng came to power following Mao Zedong's death by essentially uniting two main forces within the top leadership – the group that wanted to return to the halcyon days of "socialist construction" in the 1950s and the group that wished to try more radical reforms that didn't necessarily conform to communist orthodoxy.
Zhao Ziyang was firmly in the latter camp. Initially the two factions were united in the task of restoring the country's institutions and tools of governance, which had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. But by 1984, tensions had developed among the ruling elite.
Zhao advocated extending reforms to the cities and championed the coastal development strategy that continues to power China's economic boom. This involved opening the country to the international economy, particularly Japan and the West. Zhao was also instrumental in initiating a massive expansion of the country's scientific base, which required greater freedom of thought at a time when conservative forces in the government were campaigning against the "spiritual pollution" of widespread reforms.
Conflict over the pace of reforms led to a cycle still in evidence today. Reformers would loosen economic controls and lower level officials would seize the moment in hopes of bringing prosperity to their region. When their efforts produced soaring budget deficits, inflation and corruption, ascendant conservatives demanded re-imposition of administrative controls and ideological education.
The legacy of the 1980s is evident today in the government's attempts to achieve a "soft landing" for the economy and in the volatile cycle of oversupply and shortages seen in all aspects of the economy.
Although he will not be recognized for it either by his supporters or those responsible for keeping him locked away for the last 16 years, Zhao also helped pioneer the notion that the Communist Party continues to have the right to rule China because it can produce improvements in the general standard of living. This is a concept that remains central to the current leadership's claim on political legitimacy.