Those of us who form our opinions of international leaders from the sound bites and video clips of the international media are likely to have a much higher opinion of Zhao Ziyang than of his longtime boss and mentor, Deng Xiaoping. After all, Zhao came out to sympathize with the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square shortly before Deng ordered the People's Liberation Army to "liberate" it from them on 4 June 1989.
As a result, western media tend to give Zhao most of the credit for implementing the reforms that have now made China's economy one of the most dynamic on earth, while downplaying the role of the now tarnished Deng. Witness the obituary headline "The death of the man who reformed China and changed the world" in the 18 January Times (of London). Wikipedia, by contrast, offers much more balanced and comprehensive portraits of Zhao and Deng.
To get another perspective on Zhao's legacy, I called up a Chinese friend who emigrated to the U.S. in 1990, bringing his wife out the following year. He, his wife, and his U.S.-born daughter are now U.S. citizens. His father was not only a member of the CCP, but a party historian, and my friend pursued an M.A. in history at an American university after he emigrated, doing archival research on the Jiangxi Soviet of the early 1930s. He and his wife, both from intellectual families, were sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
My opening question was phrased in the familiar formula many Chinese citizens used to adopt in assessing Mao's legacy after his death: Was Zhao's legacy 51% positive, 49% positive, or some other balance between positive and negative? My friend suggested it was 75% positive, one major black mark being Zhao's role in persecuting intellectuals in the wake of the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956-57) and the ensuing disaster of the Great Leap Forward (1958-60).
Then what about Deng, I asked. Maybe 90% positive, he replied. As we talked, he even upped it to 95%. But why so much better than Zhao? Well, Deng was the emperor; Zhao only a talented court eunuch. Deng was ultimately more responsible for the economic reforms than his underling was.
But what about the Tiananmen Incident? Looking back from 15 years later, he said, the demonstrations seem to have been less about democracy and more about frustration with corruption and with the slow pace of reform in the cities as opposed to the countryside. If that was the case, then Deng can be credited with addressing one of the principal goals of the demonstrators by extending reforms into the urban sectors. During the 1990s the cities experienced an economic boom like that the countryside had experienced during the 1980s. Now the countryside is lagging again and desperately needs a fresh infusion of infrastructure and capital.
What was Zhao trying to accomplish when he came out to meet the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square? Looking to his legacy. Like Clinton trying to secure a peace deal in the Middle East before he left office? Exactly.
P.S. Zhao's predecessor as Deng the Reformer's right hand was Hu Yaobang, who was perhaps even more popular with the students than Zhao was. Hu had been forced to step down in 1987, after failing to control student demonstrations in 1986. Hu's death on 15 April 1989 helped spark the Tiananmen Square protests in May of that fateful year.
STUDY QUESTION: What proportion of the legacy of each of the following U.S. presidents was positive: Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton? All had major blots on their records. Effective leadership, unlike sainthood, is about trade-offs and all-too-human failings, not perfection and personal piety.