- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

There’s a lesson to be learned from Saturday’s memorial service for former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, who died Jan. 17. With hundreds of security forces on hand and no outside media allowed, it was a strict authoritarian affair. Even the 2,000 or so guests, invited by Mr. Zhao’s family, had to be approved by the Communist Party. So, what’s the lesson? It’s an old one that bears repeating: China, despite its recent economic reforms, is still ruled by a totalitarian regime more concerned about maintaining power than improving the welfare of its citizens.

Much has already been said about Mr. Zhao’s revolutionary ideas. For a brief moment in the 1980s, it looked as if his calls for greater economic and political freedom might influence the party apparatchiks to acknowledge the errors of Maoism and loosen the party’s grip on an oppressed people. Some economic reforms were followed, unlocking a huge swath of Chinese capital, but the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 spooked the party to its core.

For siding with the student demonstrators and criticizing their slaughter, Mr. Zhao was purged. He spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest, while the party did its utmost to erase all memory of his name.

Though reformist, Mr. Zhao was no capitalist or democrat. He was, however, a man of the people, a populist of the old style — and that is why the party is so worried now. Days before the memorial service, rioting broke out in certain quarters of Beijing among those “illegally” mourning Mr. Zhao’s death. Dozens were detained and several severely beaten. Once again, the party is spooked. Indeed, Chinese officials are well aware that it was the death of Mr. Zhao’s reformist forebear, Hu Yaobang, that triggered the Tiananmen uprising.

For now, it appears as if the government has a handle on the situation. But that doesn’t mask the underlying reality. As the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military noted last year, the government’s top priority is party dominance. All other secondary objectives — Taiwan, superiority in the South Pacific, etc. — are dependent on, and instrumental to, maintaining absolute control. Perhaps in their naivete, Chinese officials believe that a booming economy, which grew at a 9.5 percent rate last year, will sedate the masses. But what they have ignored is that economic freedom and political freedom are dependent on each other. The rampant fear in the party upon Mr. Zhao’s death underscores the true nature of its control.

At a moment when many experts foresee a rising China eventually challenging U.S. dominance, at least in the South Pacific, this lesson should be remembered. And for those who can recall the last 60 years it means that Communist China remains a fundamentally flawed state destined to join its brethren on the ash heap of history.

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