Last Communist

29 January 2005

Memorial for the Last Communist

by Gwynne Dyer

After two weeks of dithering and delay, the Chinese Communist Party permitted a low-key memorial ceremony for disgraced former premier Zhao Ziyang at Beijing’s Babaoshan cemetery for Communist heroes on Saturday (30 January). He was often portrayed as China’s lost Gorbachev, the reformer who might have democratised China if he had not been ousted from power at the time of the Tienanmen Square crisis in 1989.

That was why the country’s current rulers were so nervous about publicly acknowledging Zhao’s death, and why even now the regime’s police are beating up citizens who appear in public wearing white mourning flowers in his memory. But he was actually one of the last of the ancient breed of Communist true believers. They will not be missed.

Zhao’s passing, almost sixteen years after he was fired from all his posts and placed under permanent house arrest for his alleged support for the students on Tienanmen Square, raises two questions. One is whether the pro-democracy demonstrators could ever have succeeded in the face of a Communist Party that was then still run by true believers. The other is whether China would have been better off if the Communists had never gained power at all.

Zhao was born at a time when fanatical ideologies were sweeping Europe and Asia, and he never deviated from his loyalty to the Communist Party whose youth wing he joined at thirteen. He did not even object when his own father was murdered by Communists as a “rich peasant” in 1948.

When collectivisation led to famine in Guangdong province in 1958-61, he enthusiastically led the campaign to torture peasants whom Mao accused of causing the famine by hiding their (imaginary) grain reserves. His subservience to the Party was not even shaken when his elderly mother died after being denounced by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

By the late 70s Zhao had become one of Deng Xiaoping’s allies in opening up the Chinese economy to capitalist ideas, and by the late 80s he was even dabbling in notions of political reform. When university students occupied Tienanmen Square in 1989 and demanded political change, he sympathised with them — but when the Party elders insisted that the protests must be suppressed, he submitted to Party discipline yet again.

Much has been made of Zhao’s tearful visit to the students on the square the night before martial law was declared — “I’m sorry; I have come too late,” he said — but he didn’t actually stay with them. Nor did he protest aloud when the army massacred them two weeks later on 4 June, 1989: he lived and died a loyal son of the Party.

Zhao spent the laszt sixteen years of his life in a comfortable courtyard house in central Beijing, emerging only to play golf and writing occasional letters containing mild requests that the Party “reverse the verdict of Tienanmen Square.” If this was a hero of democracy, heaven preserve China from its enemies.

But the last of the Communist true believers are dying off in China now. What has taken their place, in a Party as riddled with cynicism and corruption as the Soviet Communist Party was in Gorbachev’s time, is a band of careerists whose mutual loyalty mainly depends on the fact that they must hang together lest they hang separately.

Their only claim to popular support is the economic miracle that they have allegedly wrought in modern China — but the real question is whether China would be better off if their genuinely Communist predecessors had never seized power at all.

In the dying days of the old Soviet Union it became popular to calculate how much better off Russia would have been if the Communists had not seized power in late 1917. At the start of the First World War in 1914, Russia had reached about the same level of urbanisation and

industrialisation as Italy, and was growing about as fast. Despite two world wars and the Great Depression, by 1989 Italians were about three times richer than Russians, and the gap remains as wide even today.

It is harder to make the same argument for China, which was still scarcely industrialised at all when the Communists seized power in 1949. But Communist rule merely redistributed misery and produced very little net growth during their first thirty years in power — and they caused the deaths of about forty million Chinese through murder and starvation.

The subsequent twenty-five years have seen rapid economic growth, but it’s hard to believe that even the most corrupt and incompetent Nationalist regime would have delivered less net growth since 1949. In fact, if you consider Taiwan, which started out under exactly that sort of regime in 1949 and today enjoys three or four times China’s per capita income, it is quite impossible to believe.

Zhao changed as he aged, becoming less fanatical and abandoning his old enthusiasm for murder and torture as useful political tools, and he always meant to do good for China. But if he is the last of the ancient breed, good riddance.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8 (“Zhao’s passing…atall”; and “Zhao spent…its enemies”)