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Book by Philip P. Pan
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Philip P. Pan is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and the newspaper's former Beijing bureau chief. During his tour in China from 2000 to 2007 he won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in international reporting, the Overseas Press Club's Bob Considine Award for best newspaper interpretation of international affairs, and the Asia Society's Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia. He is a graduate of Harvard College and studied Chinese at Peking University. He lives with his wife and son in New York and will begin a new assignment for the Post in Moscow in 2008.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE PUBLIC FUNERAL
They came from the walled compounds of the Communist Party elite and the shantytowns of the disgruntled and dispossessed, from universities and office towers, from booming cities and dirt-poor villages across China. They came by the thousands, citizens of a nation on the rise, defying the lessons drilled into them by state propaganda and the caution taught them by a century of bitter experience. On a cold January morning, in sleek sedans and battered taxicabs, on bicycle and on foot, they made their way past security checkpoints, refusing to turn back even when police snapped photos and recorded their names for the state's secret files. Slowly, they converged on a vast cemetery on the western outskirts of Beijing. There, in a small memorial hall, on a dais surrounded by evergreen leaves, lay the man whose death they had come to mourn, a man the party had told them to forget.
They last saw him more than fifteen years ago, with a bullhorn in his hands and tears in his eyes, standing in Tiananmen Square amid the students who were demanding democratic reform in the spring of 1989. Zhao Ziyang was general secretary of the Communist Party then, only the third man to hold the party's top post after Mao's death, so it was a surprise when he suddenly appeared before dawn that May morning and waded into the crowd of young protesters. He was a grandfatherly figure in a gray tunic suit, already seventy years old with white hair and large round glasses. As the television cameras rolled, he told the students he sympathized with their cause and accepted their criticism, and he urged them to go home. But his voice trembled with emotion, and there was a hint of the tragedy to come in his words. "We have come too late, too late," he said, choking up, his face drawn with exhaustion. And then he was gone. It was not until much later, after the tanks had entered the capital and the soldiers opened fi re, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, that the world learned Zhao had been ousted by party elders just before coming to the square. He had sided with the students, refusing to order the military to crush the demonstrations.
The party put Zhao under house arrest and set about erasing him from public memory. He was airbrushed from photographs, deleted from textbooks, and any mention of his name in the media was forbidden. It was as if the Communist leader who came closer than anyone else to bringing democratic change to the country simply ceased to exist. As he languished in custody, the state spun its own version of history: The bloodshed in Tiananmen was necessary to restore order. China was too big, too poor, too uneducated for democracy, which would lead to chaos and civil war. Only one-party rule could ensure stability in the world's most populous nation, and only stability could guarantee the economic growth needed to make the country strong. The propagandists promoted these arguments tirelessly, and the censors buried competing views. With repetition and the passage of time -- and the help of an economy that soared -- many Chinese came to accept this view of their nation, and the world welcomed China back into the ranks of respectable powers. But all the while, the party continued to confine Zhao to his traditional courtyard home in Beijing. He was a symbol of another vision for China, one that still resonated with the public despite the party's efforts to wipe it out. The men who held power knew this, and they were afraid.
When Zhao died on January 17, 2005, after suffering a series of strokes at the age of eighty-five, the party's leaders convened a series of emergency meetings to prepare a response that would prevent his death from triggering a new debate about the Tiananmen massacre or fresh demonstrations for democratic reform. Though Zhao had served as premier for seven years and party chief for three, pioneering the market reforms in the 1980s that would transform the Chinese economy, his successors ordered state television and radio not to announce his death. The very few granted permission to report the story were told to use a one-sentence dispatch that referred to him only as "comrade" and to make no mention of his past leadership posts. The Beijing Evening News buried the item on page sixteen, under a brief about the Golden Globe awards ceremony in the United States.
But the party's control of information had weakened in the years since Tiananmen. Word of Comrade Zhao's death spread quickly across the nation he once led via home satellite dishes and cell phones, e-mail and instant messaging. Within hours, citizens posted thousands of notes of sorrow and remembrance on Internet bulletin boards, then watched as the censors tried to delete them. "Can't we grieve when someone has died?" wrote one user in frustration on the Web site of the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper. In the following days, as it became clear the leadership had decided to deny Zhao the honor of a state funeral, people began sending flowers to his home; soon there were enough to fill several rooms. Then mourners started showing up at the house. Hundreds came to pay their respects, and when police tried to stop them, they waited outside in the cold. Some refused to leave and were dragged away.
Zhao's death revealed a scar on the nation's conscience. For years, people had tried to put Tiananmen behind them. Friends avoided the subject, and parents told their children not to ask about it. Many of those who had been part of the democracy movement threw themselves into making money, claiming they no longer cared about their country's political fate. The pain of remembering, the guilt of giving up and moving on -- for many, it was too much to bear, and looking away seemed the only way to live. But when Zhao died, people allowed themselves a moment to reflect again on those young men and women killed in 1989, and to ask whether their sacrifice had meant anything. They examined what had become of their country in the years since the massacre, and let themselves wonder what might have been had the students moderated their demands and prevailed. They considered the failings of the party's marriage of authoritarian politics with capitalist economics. Yes, China had grown more prosperous and gained international prestige. But the boom had also left many behind, and the nation's troubles were obvious to anyone willing to see: the stifling limits on political and religious freedoms, the abuse of power by privileged officials, the sweatshop conditions in the factories, the persistent poverty in the countryside, the degradation of the environment, the moral drift of a cynical society.
Zhao had been a party activist since he was a teenager, but when Politburo hard-liners pressured him to crush the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, he refused. And when the nation's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, ordered troops into the capital, he tendered his resignation. Years later, when Deng offered to reinstate him if only he would admit he was wrong and endorse the crackdown, Zhao again said no. Zhao made it clear that there was a line he would not cross. How many others could say the same? How many had signed statements repeating the party's lies about Tiananmen to save themselves in the crackdown that followed? How many continued to curry favor with the party to further their careers or gain an edge in business? How many could really say their hands were clean?
Wang junxiu had just arrived in his Beijing office, and was bypassing the government's Internet controls and checking the news on overseas Web sites. As he clicked, he spotted the item: Zhao Ziyang, former Chinese Communist Party chief, dead at eighty-five. So it really happened, he thought. The old man finally passed away.
A stocky fellow in his mid-thirties with a rough, pudgy face, Wang was the cofounder and chief executive officer of China's most popular blog-hosting Web site, Bokee.com. For weeks government censors had been warning him to prevent rumors about Zhao's failing health from being posted on the site. Zhao could die at any moment, they said, and if he did, they didn't want Wang's five million users reading about it or discussing it. As usual, Wang assured them he would comply. But he also knew there was really no need for the warning. His company had long ago programmed its software to block people from mentioning Zhao's name in their blogs.
Wang felt a dull sadness. Until the censors started calling, he had not thought about Zhao in years. For most of the past decade and a half, Wang had been immersing himself in books about memory chips and programming languages, and building a comfortable life for himself and his wife, complete with a two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs. But Zhao's death brought back memories from another life, one in which he dared to fight for principles like freedom of speech. It stirred up feelings that had been gnawing at his conscience and doubts about the choices he had made. It made him wonder what had become of the young idealist he once was.
It felt as if a lifetime had passed since he participated in the protests in Tiananmen Square, but now he remembered the exhilaration of marching through the city as part of a crowd of hundreds of thousands; the cry of students chanting slogans for freedom and democracy; the conviction that he could make a difference and help steer his nation toward a better future. He was a junior at the China University of Politics and Law then, a shy kid from the countryside who gained self-confidence in the student movement. As the demonstrations grew and spread across the country that spring, Wang set up a loudspeaker station on his campus so classmates could broadcast news and speeches. He often spent his days in the square and his nights at the loudspeaker station, sleeping only a few hours at a time and living off the adrenalin rush of idealism. He was at the station on the night the army opened fire, reading out the reports of violence as they came in, but he kept thinking that there must be a mistake, that the military couldn't have done this, that people ...
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