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An abnormal country
Frank Ching, SCMP

The death of former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang is a reminder of the tragedy that befell China 15 years ago when the People's Liberation Army was called on to shoot down unarmed demonstrators, students and civilians. But it is also a reminder that China, even today, is far from being a normal country, where the rule of law holds sway.

For one thing, the 85-year-old Zhao had never been convicted of any crime. There was no criminal charge, no trial and no verdict. Yet, in 1989, he was deprived of liberty for the rest of his life simply for disagreeing with the actions of the leaders of the party, who themselves were acting illegally. Deng Xiaoping , for example, was theoretically in retirement, yet he was the one who was actually in charge.

This is not to dismiss Deng's huge contributions to the country in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. It is simply a statement of fact that those who had ostensibly given up their power made decisions that they did not have the legal authority to make.

Since then, of course, China has moved on. Today, it is a major trading power, and its economy is an important engine of growth for the region and the world. Yet, in terms of the rule of law, it still has a very long way to go. Political reform is desperately needed.

For one thing, the party remains above the state and not subject to the law. Since the party is paramount, this means that the most powerful body in China is, in essence, a lawless body. It can incarcerate anyone it wants to, from the lowliest peasant in the countryside to the highest official, such as Zhao, without going through due process.
Zhao was already 70 years old when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, leading to his illegal incarceration for life. But the student leaders at the time were only in their 20s. Those who are not in prison, who were able to go overseas, are not allowed to go home. They can return to their homeland only if they are willing to face imprisonment. They have been exiled and cannot even attend their parents' funerals without risking imprisonment.
In 1976, when the revered Premier Zhou Enlai died, Tiananmen Square was filled with wreaths in his honour. When those wreaths were removed by adherents of the Gang of Four, the citizens of Beijing poured into the square in protest.

At the time, Deng was blamed for the disturbance and dismissed from all his posts. But after the death of Mao Zedong , Deng was rehabilitated and became China's new paramount leader.

In 1989, when Hu Yaobang, Zhao's predecessor as party leader, died, the square was once again filled with mourners. This time, student leaders were in charge, demanding an end to corruption, collusion between officials and businessmen, as well as democracy. The party leader then was Zhao, who did not want to suppress the students, but he was overruled.

Now, Zhao himself is dead, and clearly those in power are fearful that, once again, the "masses" - who, theoretically, are the masters of the country - may once again pour into the square and protest. That is why, even while Zhao lay dying in his hospital bed, new rules were put in place requiring 1,000 police officers to guard Tiananmen Square every day, and for all visitors to be escorted by the police.

The China Daily website carried a brief report on Zhao's death on Monday. At the end was the customary invitation to "comment on this article". In the early afternoon, there were only a few comments, virtually all favourable. By late afternoon, the invitation had been withdrawn. Clearly, the powers that be are taking no chances.

China deserves better governance. One day, no doubt, it will get it. Meanwhile, the party should try to facilitate, rather than obstruct, the transition towards greater democracy and rule of law.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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