January 17, 2005, The New York Times, By JIM YARDLEY
BEIJING, Monday, Jan. 17 - Zhao Ziyang, the former general secretary of China's Communist Party who was stripped of power for supporting the students during their 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests, died in a Beijing hospital on Monday, his family said. He was 85, and had been in a coma since Friday after suffering a series of strokes. For the past 15 years, Mr. Zhao had lived under house arrest not far from the government offices where he once led China.
During his long confinement, he had become a powerful symbol for those Chinese who believe the government must reassess its bloody crackdown at Tiananmen. He blamed top leaders for ordering the military assault, and he refused to embrace the official line that the demonstrations had been a "counter-revolutionary rebellion."
In what would be his last public appearance, Mr. Zhao visited students at Tiananmen on May 19, 1989. He pleaded with them to leave, apologized for having arrived "too late," and warned that the authorities were planning to remove them. It is now clear that Mr. Zhao made the visit directly after being fired by China's Politburo.
Martial law was announced the next day in a prelude to the crackdown on June 3-4, when soldiers fired on protesters throughout Beijing, killing hundreds, possibly more. Mr. Zhao's visit to Tiananmen was also notable for the dazed-looking aide, captured in a famous photograph, who accompanied him: Wen Jiabao, now China's prime minister. Mr. Zhao's role at Tiananmen came to overshadow his other legacy as a principal architect of the sweeping economic changes that began in the 1980's under Deng Xiaoping, then China's paramount leader. Mr. Zhao pushed to develop coastal provinces with special economic zones that could lure foreign investment and create export hubs - the blueprint for what is the backbone of the current Chinese economy.
"Deng Xiaoping's entire economic package, a good part of it, was really Zhao Ziyang's brainchild," said David Shambaugh, who wrote a 1984 biography of Mr. Zhao. "In coastal development, agriculture, price reform and industrial reform, those were Zhao's ideas. Deng got the credit, but they were Zhao's ideas." Unlike Mr. Deng and Mao Zedong, Mr. Zhao had not been a military hero during the Communist revolution. Nor had he taken part in the Long March of 1934-35, the unifying rite of passage for the generation of Communist leaders who founded the People's Republic of China in 1949. Instead, Mr. Zhao's political apprenticeship came as a provincial bureaucrat. Born in 1919 in central China's Henan Province, he joined the Communist Youth League in 1932, then joined the Chinese Communist Party six years later. He served in the military during the war against the Japanese, then during the Chinese revolution, but his posts were largely administrative.
Mr. Zhao had no formal training as an economist but exhibited a pragmatic style and had record of success that eventually attracted Mr. Deng's attention. Dispatched to southern China after the Communist victory in 1949, Mr. Zhao focused on land reform issues as he steadily rose through the political ranks in Guangdong Province. Few issues were more politically charged in newly Communist China. Efforts to fulfill Mao's vision of a socialist utopia led to the abandonment of private land plots in favor of agricultural communes. But the misguided collectivization schemes of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60 became a historic catastrophe. An estimated 30 million people died during three horrific years of famine caused by a collapse in food production. In 1962, Mr. Zhao, then the top provincial official in Guangdong, introduced a plan to disband the commune system and return private land plots to farmers while assigning production contracts to individual households. The system worked and would become a model that helped the rest of China rebuild agricultural output. Politically, though, Mr. Zhao would not be rewarded. In 1967, he was persecuted during the purges of the Cultural Revolution for "revisionist" thinking and spent four years in forced labor at a factory. He re-emerged in 1971 as an official in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, seemingly as a born-again Maoist. He gave a speech renouncing private enterprise and material incentives.
But his conversion was apparently not very genuine. He returned to Guangdong in 1972 and then moved to Sichuan Province in 1975. There, he introduced land reforms similar to those he had used earlier in Guangdong and loosened controls on industry. He allowed farmers and factories to set prices for their products, a decision that saw three years of production increases. His performance also gained the attention of Mr. Deng. A Sichuan native, Mr. Deng had survived two purge attempts to eventually emerge as China's paramount leader after Mao's death in 1976. Mr. Deng wanted to solve China's economic problems with pragmatic solutions, not ideological experiments, and in 1980 he brought Mr. Zhao to Beijing as deputy prime minister.