Chapter One: 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 fire, 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 website 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 websites. 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 website, 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 weren’t really dying. When the bodies of four students killed in the shooting were brought back to the university, he put down the microphone and wept.
Later that morning, teachers and classmates urged Wang to flee the capital: he had attracted attention to himself, and they feared the authorities would be looking to arrest him. Rushing to the rail station, Wang saw the smoking wrecks of cars and buses that residents had tried to use to block the army’s attack. He caught the first train out, and eventually made his way to his hometown in rural Shanxi Province, where he listened to the reports of student arrests and waited for word of his own fate. Several tense weeks later, the university summoned him back to campus — he would be allowed to return to school and graduate if he confessed. Wang felt he had no choice. The teachers assigned to his case let him get away with describing only his own actions and never pressed him to name others who took part in the demonstrations. But like many students in his situation, Wang had to endorse the military crackdown and write that he had been “tricked” into supporting the democracy movement. It was a lie, but at the time he was just relieved to be getting off easy.
After earning his law degree, Wang returned to his hometown and struggled to find work because no one wanted to hire someone tainted by participation in the Tiananmen protests. As the government pushed ahead with market reforms, though, the emerging private sector began to overtake the state economy, creating opportunities even for political outcasts. A fellow law student and Tiananmen protester named Pu Zhiqiang helped Wang get a job at an advertising firm in Beijing. The company was hired to produce a regular feature page about computers for a state newspaper, and Wang was assigned to edit it. He threw himself into work, learning as much as he could about the computer industry. One job led to another, and within a few years he had gained enough experience and expertise to start a tech consulting firm with a friend. Suddenly he was a member of Beijing’s growing middle class.
Each year, Wang let go of the past a little more. It hurt to dwell on the tragedy, to think of the lives lost and the fact that no one would ever be held accountable, to wonder how China might be different if the party had set the nation on a path of gradual political reform. The Communist Party maintained a tight grip on power, and as far as Wang could tell, there was nothing he could do about it. So, like almost everyone else, he moved on. He focused on his own problems instead of the country’s, on work instead of politics, on money instead of justice.
Wang worked so hard that his health suffered. In 2000, he was forced to take a medical leave and while recuperating at home, he found himself exploring the World Wide Web. The Internet was still relatively new to China, and the government had not yet started blocking access to politically objectionable websites. Bored and restless, Wang came across the vast array of material available online about the Tiananmen Square demonstrations — essays, memoirs, reports, even videos. He was quickly drawn in, spending entire days in front of his computer, scrolling through one compelling document after another. A novel he found online left a particularly deep impression. It was based on the experiences of a group of friends who agonized over whether to help a democracy activist wanted by police after the massacre; in the end, they tried to smuggle him out of the country but were betrayed by one of their own, and they all ended up in prison. It was during this break from his hectic career that Wang began to think about the potential of the Internet; he would help start Bokee.com three years later. It was also during the medical leave that Wang first read at length about Zhao Ziyang. In the final days of the democracy movement, he had seen a poster on campus calling on students to “protect” Zhao, and he recalled reading a number of reports about political reform written by think tanks under Zhao’s control. But the party’s efforts to erase Zhao from history had been so effective that Wang never appreciated who Zhao was and what he had done until he read about him on the Web. It was only then that he learned Zhao was still alive and being held under house arrest.
After Zhao’s death, Wang felt compelled to examine his own life, to ask himself if he had strayed too far from his principles in the years since Tiananmen. Yes, he marked the anniversary of the movement every year by visiting the square with a few old friends. Yes, he once signed an open letter urging the government to apologize for the massacre. But could he have done more? His company had challenged the state’s monopoly of the media by giving millions of Chinese a place to publish on the Web. But given his compliance with the party’s Internet censors, was that enough?
The more Wang thought, the more he knew he had to pay tribute to Zhao. At home that evening, he sat in front of his computer and composed a eulogy:
Your death will be in our hearts forever, never to be forgotten. We will always remember that you once used your body to block the bullets that gunned down our nation’s glorious future. You calmly endured 16 years of life without freedom. You never bowed your head. You stood up for justice. You displayed the utmost in political courage. Because of you, there was a rare bit of color in the gloom of politics. And yet the cowardly souls you tried to redeem repaid you with cruel confinement. For 16 years, you as a common citizen frightened those destroying our nation, shamed those who are fainthearted, and inspired people of integrity and ideals. All patriotic people who cherish justice, whether they are old or young, from north or south, followed you closely, praying for you and hoping that one day they might fight for the nation’s future with you. We shared the same willingness to act regardless of what might happen to us, the same love of our country, the same desire to pursue justice and freedom. But now, before we could realize our dreams, the heavens have taken you from us. How could we not grieve deeply?
Wang signed the essay “The 1989 Generation,” and sent copies to some friends.
The next day, he read online that people were visiting Zhao’s home to pay their respects to his family, and he decided that he would also go. He skipped work a few days later. Together with a few friends, he bought some flowers and located Zhao’s house using an address he found on the Internet. No one tried to stop them as they walked down a narrow alley to the house, but inside past the large red doors, Wang noticed several men who appeared to be state security agents. Some had cameras and snapped photos, but he was no longer frightened. He signed his name in a guest book on a table near the entrance and left his phone number, too.
The house was of a traditional design, with rooms positioned around two small courtyards. The family had set up a memorial shrine in a small study located to the left, and it was full of wreaths of white and yellow chrysanthemums graced with black and white ribbons carrying messages of condolence. A portrait of Zhao wearing a light blue shirt hung on the center of the main wall. Nearby was a funeral scroll: “To be your children is the honor of our lives. To support your decision is our unchanging choice.”
What Wang found most striking about Zhao’s house was how ordinary and run-down it was. The walls were dirty, the ceilings were low, and the study was furnished only with a shabby sofa, an old desk, and a small collection of books, among them the translated memoirs of a few U.S. and Soviet leaders and a recent exposé of rural corruption, An Investigation of China’s Peasantry. It occurred to Wang that the house was not much bigger or better than his parents’ simple home in the countryside. So this was where a great man had been confined in old age, left to die all but forgotten by the world.
Wang expressed his sympathies to Zhao’s relatives, who were dressed in dark blue cotton coats, and he gave them copies of the eulogy he’d written. One of Zhao’s grandchildren, a teenage girl, started to cry as she read the tribute, and as he watched her, Wang found himself wiping away tears, too.
FUNERALS for popular Chinese leaders can be politically sensitive affairs. In 1976, Mao tried to restrict public mourning for his longtime deputy, Premier Zhou Enlai, the man who engineered the rapprochement with the United States and was viewed as a voice of restraint during the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. But a million people lined his funeral route, and tens of thousands later staged protests in Tiananmen Square and clashed with police. The 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen were also triggered by the death of a popular leader, the reformist party chief Hu Yaobang, who had been ousted by hard-liners two years earlier. So in 2005, the leadership approached Zhao’s funeral with particular caution. It wanted a memorial service that would help the nation forget Zhao’s life, not celebrate it.
The task seemed easy enough, for it had never been very difficult to persuade people to forget Zhao. Western governments stopped asking about him almost as soon as he fell from power, and kept his name off the lists of political prisoners they inquired about. Many analysts at the time considered Zhao an authoritarian leader who sided with the students as part of a power struggle, not a genuine democrat. His critics argued that he never showed much interest in democratic reform before the Tiananmen movement, and accused him of helping the party’s hard-liners topple his liberal predecessor. Zhao backed the pro-democracy demonstrations, they said, only because he was an opportunist making a power play against the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. This was the cynic’s interpretation of Zhao’s decision to oppose the military assault in 1989, and Deng and the men he picked to replace Zhao were more than happy to let it stand. The last thing they wanted people to believe was the alternative, that Zhao was that rare exception in the history of Chinese Communist Party leaders: a man who could no longer go along with evil.
But in time, that’s what the evidence showed he was. In internal documents smuggled out of China and memoirs written by people who worked with him, a picture emerged of Zhao that challenged the party’s caricature. Not only was he a bold advocate of capitalist-style economic reforms at a time when party conservatives were fighting such policies as ideological heresy, he also was a proponent of political reform who favored a democratic transition in China, albeit a gradual one. During his three years in power, Zhao promoted discussion of changes in the party’s ossified political structure to reduce corruption, including the introduction of competitive elections and increased autonomy for local and national parliaments. He told one aide he hoped provincial-level elections could be held within a decade. Another recalled that during Zhao’s tenure, neither the Politburo nor its powerful Standing Committee ever discussed a single case involving a “political crime.” And when officials sought his instructions about a new film about the Cultural Revolution, Zhao suggested the party stop interfering in the arts. “I don’t investigate movies, I watch them,” he said. “If I have to issue instructions for every movie I see, I think I’ll stop watching movies.”
When the students filled Tiananmen Square, Zhao encouraged dialogue and calm, cautioned his colleagues against heavy-handed measures, and appeared to sympathize with the protesters’ demands. “Democracy is a worldwide trend,” he told the Politburo on May 1, two weeks after the demonstrations began and months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “If the party does not hold up the banner of democracy in our country, someone else will, and we will lose out. I think we should grab the lead on this and not be pushed along grudgingly.” A few weeks later, Zhao discussed the subject with the Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to Beijing at the height of the student protests for a previously scheduled summit meeting. “Can a one party system ensure the development of democracy?” Zhao asked his Soviet counterpart. “Can it implement effective control over negative phenomena and fight the corruption in party and government institutions?” Gorbachev recalled the conversation in his memoirs:
From Zhao’s arguments, it followed that the Chinese leadership was prepared to follow the path of political reform by giving the masses a chance to enjoy broad democratic rights under one party rule. He concluded that if this did not work out, the issue of a multi-party system would inevitably arise. In addition, he emphasized the need to strengthen citizens’ constitutional rights and create an optimal correlation between democracy and law. Law must be based on democracy, and democracy must be based on law….To be frank, the openness demonstrated at my meeting with [Zhao] amazed me….Here he was, faced with a democratic challenge from the student masses. Zhao Ziyang had to know that many were demanding the imposition of order, since the student demonstrations had taken on the character of civil disobedience. But most of these demonstrators were people who had followed him, after all, or at least who had been inspired by ideas he himself shared. Herein lay his drama.
The drama reached its climax the day after Zhao’s meeting with Gorbachev. In an expanded session of the Politburo Standing Committee, Deng proposed the imposition of martial law to clear the square and end the protests. Zhao objected, and when he was overruled, he tendered his resignation.
After the bloodshed, Zhao submitted to life under house arrest. From his home at No. 6 Fuqiang Hutong, he watched in frustration as the party blamed him for the student “turmoil” and then set out to make sure the country forgot him. He tried to resist. In the late 1990s, two letters he wrote demanding a reassessment of the Tiananmen protests were leaked to the public. And later, in interviews secretly conducted by various friends in the years before his death, he managed to present his views for the historical record. He explained his plans for gradual democratic reform, answering critics who accused him of moving too slowly as well as those who said he had moved too fast, and he faulted Deng for failing to grasp the need to adapt the political system to the new economy he was building. He denied trying to push out his predecessor, and criticized his successors — China’s current leaders — for lacking vision and forbidding even talk of political reform. He worried about rampant corruption and rising discontent with the party’s rule, and wondered whether those who benefited most from China’s one-party market economy — party hacks and their cronies — were already too powerful and entrenched for any leader to introduce democracy. But most of all, he denounced the Tiananmen Square massacre. “There was an argument that the suppression was the last resort, as there was no alternative. This argument is wrong,” he said. “We had many chances that would have made a solution without bloodshed possible.”
Zhao lived under constant surveillance, and security remained tight even as he lay on his deathbed in the hospital. Some party officials resorted to putting on white lab coats and pretending to be doctors so they could keep a closer eye on him. When Li Rui, the eighty-eight-year-old former government minister who once served as an aide to Mao, attempted to visit Zhao in late December, security agents blocked his way for nearly an hour before a supervisor intervened. Days before Zhao’s death, the seventy-five-year-old former Politburo member Tian Jiyun was permitted to see his former colleague for the first time in more than fifteen years, but security agents insisted on staying in the room to monitor their brief conversation. After Zhao died of lung failure, Tian returned to the hospital. “Now that he has gone,” he told Zhao’s children, “we don’t have to be afraid any more of people saying we are plotting some so-called hidden scheme!” Zhao’s only daughter, Wang Yannan, announced her father’s death in a text message to friends with her cell phone: “He left quietly this morning. He is free at last!”
But even after Zhao’s death, the security apparatus didn’t back off. His children began having trouble making and receiving calls with their cell phones, and the calls that did go through were often cut off. Police set up checkpoints around his house, blocking friends trying to visit to express their sympathies. They also detained a large group of petitioners, ordinary citizens from around the country who had traveled to Beijing with grievances against the abuse of power by local officials, and who unfurled a banner “in memory of our good leader.” When Bao Tong, the seventy-two-year-old former aide to Zhao who was the highest-ranking official arrested in the Tiananmen crackdown, attempted to leave his apartment building to pay his respects, a team of plainclothes security agents shoved him back inside and into an elevator. His seventy-three-year-old wife was knocked to the ground in the scuffle and hospitalized for weeks with a fractured vertebra. Bao sprained his wrist and a finger, but the agents wouldn’t let him see a doctor unless he removed a white flower pinned to his shirt and a black armband he was wearing, traditional symbols of mourning. He refused and endured the pain instead.
Meanwhile, Zhao’s children began negotiating their father’s memorial arrangements with senior party officials assigned to handle the funeral. The family wanted to host the service and open it to the public, but the party insisted that it be allowed to take control and restrict attendance. Another point of dispute was the content of an official obituary evaluating Zhao’s life. Such obituaries are standard protocol for senior officials, but Zhao’s family objected because the party’s draft accused him of making a “serious mistake” in 1989 and played down his role in promoting the market reforms that transformed the economy. They argued that if any “mistake” was mentioned, the party should be specific about what their father had done wrong, and note that he spent the last years of his life under house arrest for it. There was also disagreement over what would happen to Zhao’s ashes. The party agreed to place them in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the nation’s main resting place for revolutionary heroes and high government officials, but selected a small memorial hall that the family complained held only the ashes of lower-level officials. Later, the family inquired about purchasing a plot in the section of the cemetery open to the public. Party officials lied and told them it was sold out, apparently because they worried the tomb might become a gathering place for the party’s opponents in the future.
After sixteen rounds of negotiations in little more than a week, the party finally told the family it intended to organize a modest, invitation-only funeral and refrain from publishing an official evaluation of Zhao’s life. The family would be allowed to submit a list of guests and take his ashes home. Zhao’s children reluctantly agreed, but outlined their concerns in a letter to party authorities. They noted that their father had been held under illegal house arrest for nearly sixteen years, and urged the party to give people who had been prevented from seeing him for so long a chance to attend the funeral and say good-bye. They said their father never changed his position on the Tiananmen Square movement, and neither would they. The party was just wrong, they wrote, and no matter what it said about him now, “history would draw the correct conclusion.”
ABOUT a week after Wang Junxiu visited Zhao’s house, the family arranged for him to get an invitation to the funeral. Wang knew that attending the service would be a political statement, and that there could be consequences. Perhaps the secret police would put his name on some blacklist, or scrutinize his company’s finances, or put pressure on his business partners. Anything could happen, or nothing could happen. The uncertainty had the effect of magnifying fear, and the party used fear to discourage people from concerning themselves with politics or public affairs. It preferred that they focus on their narrow self-interests, because that made it easier to keep them divided and prevent them from coming together to challenge its rule. It preferred that people skip Zhao’s funeral. Wang recognized that there was no benefit to attending the service, only risks and costs. But he decided almost immediately that he would go. His conscience demanded it. As a member of the Tiananmen generation and one of the many students that Zhao had tried to defend, he felt it was the least he could do.
Wang woke before dawn on the morning of the memorial service. The Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery was on the other side of the city, and he had arranged to meet a few friends and share a ride. It was a frigid winter day, and brisk winds had cleared away the pollution that usually choked Beijing, revealing a cloudless blue sky. Despite the cold, Wang dressed lightly, just a sweater and a leather jacket. He took a cab to a nearby light rail station, passing the headquarters of the army’s 2nd Artillery Division, the offices of the computer manufacturer Lenovo, and a vast construction site where yet another luxury apartment complex was going up. The train took him from the suburbs to a subway station in the city, where his friends picked him up in a jeep. There were three others in the car with him: Xue Ye, an environmental activist; Mo Zhaohui, a book publisher; and a driver employed by Mo’s publishing house. Both Xue and Mo had participated in the 1989 demonstrations, and the three of them had been friends for years.
Sitting in the back with Xue, Wang noticed three large bundles of white cloth on the floor of the jeep. In the days before, he and his friends had decided to carry banners in honor of Zhao to the service, and Mo had paid a company to make them. “You are free at last!” read one. “Our memories will not fade, your ideals will never die!” read another. The third said, “You inspired awe by maintaining justice, and that will not diminish with time!” Each was signed “The 1989 Generation.” Wang had felt strongly about bringing the banners. He knew that most of the leaders of the Tiananmen movement had been exiled, and that others who participated had been detained in recent days to prevent them from attending the funeral. He thought the banners would speak on their behalf. He also wanted other people, especially those younger than them, to know that his generation had not been silenced and had not forgotten what happened. But as he examined the bundles of cloth in the car, Wang realized there was a problem. They were too big and too heavy. At least two people would be required to carry each one, even if they were not unfurled. After some discussion, Mo and Xue said they would carry one in first, and if no one stopped them, Wang would recruit friends to help him bring in the other two.
As they drove toward the cemetery, Wang noticed more and more police taking up positions on the streets, men in dark blue uniforms with motorcycles, cruisers, and vans. The vast deployment seemed intended to crush any attempt to stage demonstrations in the city. Some of the officers were setting up checkpoints and roadblocks, and Wang began to worry they might be stopped and prevented from going to the funeral. Xue wondered aloud if the police might try to seize the banners and get rough with them. He scribbled a few names and numbers on a scrap of paper, then handed it to Wang along with his house keys. “If anything happens,” he said, “call these people and give them my keys.” Wang looked at his friend, and it suddenly occurred to him that they were not young anymore. The 1989 generation had grown up. As they approached the cemetery, it was almost 9 A.M.
The memorial activities had begun four hours earlier, in the hospital where Zhao died. The authorities had prohibited Bao Tong, his chief political aide, from attending the funeral, but at the family’s insistence, the party agreed to let him pay his respects in a private ceremony at the hospital. He arrived in a police motorcade under armed guard at 5 A.M. and walked into the room with his hand still bandaged from the scuffle two weeks earlier. Bao looked thin and frail, the white flower still pinned on his shirt, and as a funeral dirge played, he bowed his head before Zhao’s body. It was the first time since Bao’s arrest in May 1989 that he had been permitted to see his old colleague. “You are the only person now with a clear understanding of some things,” one of Zhao’s sons said to him, referring to the party’s secret deliberations before the crackdown. “It’s clear to everyone now,” Bao replied. “Everyone knows what happened. The people all know.” After the ceremony, he posed for a photograph with Zhao’s extended family. But as soon as Zhao’s daughter took out her camera, party officials objected and tried to take it from her. Her brothers came to her defense, and there was yelling and chaos. “If you are human, leave us alone!” Bao shouted. It was only after the family threatened to cancel the funeral that the officials finally backed off and let them take the picture.
The funeral motorcade departed the hospital soon afterward. It was still dark out, and police stopped traffic at every intersection on the route to the cemetery. The motorcade sped through the sleeping city, almost racing, as if the authorities were worried someone might wake and catch a glimpse of it going by. Zhao’s family urged the police to show some respect and slow down, but they were ignored.
At the cemetery, there was a dispute over a funeral scroll the family had prepared. “You advocated democracy and stood by your conscience. Your children are proud of you,” it said. “In the Western heavens, you finally won your freedom. Your grace remains with us forever.” A party official objected. “Democracy, hmph! Freedom, hmph! You can’t put these up during a funeral hosted by the organization.” Zhao’s family refused to back down and threatened to walk out if the scroll were not put up. But at 8:10 A.M., twenty minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin, the family was asked to take their positions for a practice run of the ceremony. Instead of a rehearsal, though, the party started the actual service. Without a warning to the family and without the funeral scroll going up, an orchestral dirge started playing, and the first guests, members of the party’s senior leadership, walked into the hall.
Zhao’s successors — the retired party chief, Jiang Zemin, and the new president, Hu Jintao — didn’t bother to show up. Neither did Premier Wen Jiabao, who once served as an aide to Zhao and accompanied him on his last desperate visit with the students in Tiananmen Square. Instead, the government was represented by Jia Qinglin, a man many considered one of the Politburo’s most corrupt members, precisely the kind of figure Zhao had hoped his political reforms would prevent from rising to power. Jia and the few other party bigwigs who came were whisked away before other guests were allowed to enter.
Neither the time nor the location of the memorial service had been announced to the public. But outside, thousands of people from across the country were converging on the cemetery. Hundreds were already waiting at the gate. The family had submitted a list of nearly three thousand guests to the party, including almost everyone who had visited their home or contacted them after Zhao’s death. But it was clear that many more had come hoping to pay their respects to Zhao. Uniformed and plainclothes police were everywhere, trying to stop those without invitations while letting the others through. One group of mourners hoisted a banner that said “Zhao Ziyang’s spirit lives forever,” and then police tackled them. Others tried to break through the police cordon and were dragged away.
Wang’s companions dropped him off in the crowd, then took the jeep to the parking lot, where they were going to try to bring their banners in through a different gate. He got in line, and began making his way toward the cemetery through the police checkpoints. Along the way, he ran into one old friend after another, and marveled at the number of people who had decided to come. At one gate, a small crowd had gathered around officers who had stopped an elderly woman because she didn’t have an invitation. She was in her eighties and could walk only with the help of her granddaughter, who did have an invitation. Several of the guests were arguing with the officers, urging them to show compassion and let the old woman in. Later, inside the cemetery, Wang saw another small crowd gathered around the police, and then realized that his friends Mo and Xue were at the center of the group. The police had taken the banner from them. After a brief delay, they let them continue inside without it.
Wang and his friends fell in behind the crowd of mourners waiting to enter the memorial hall. They stood in a row of four, talking quietly as they stepped inside. Fifty funeral wreaths were placed along the walls, and the photo of Zhao in the blue denim shirt was displayed at the front of the small room. Zhao’s pale and gaunt body lay on a dais, dressed in a traditional, high-collared jacket and covered by the red and-white Communist Party flag. As loudspeakers played the dirge, Wang and his friends bowed three times before Zhao’s body. Then they each shook hands with Zhao’s relatives, who stood along a wall to the left. But no one was allowed to linger. Plainclothes officers briskly ushered Wang and his companions out as others behind them repeated the ceremony.
As he left the building, Wang felt an intense anger welling up inside him, and he wept in frustration. It was not just the scaled-down memorial service, which he considered an unacceptable substitute for the full state funeral Zhao deserved. Nor was it only the disrespectful behavior of the police and the huge security presence, which he found insulting to Zhao’s memory and his legacy. (How could the authorities send an armored anti-riot vehicle to the funeral of the man who refused to order troops into Tiananmen Square?) Rather, he felt a deep despair over what had become of his nation since Zhao’s death. Leaning on a wall outside the memorial hall with tears in his eyes and a police officer barking at him to keep moving, Wang was overcome by the magnitude of the country’s problems — the rampant corruption and abuse of power, the rising inequality and injustice, the moral decay of society.
And then he noticed the people around him. The mourners represented a remarkable cross section of China’s emerging civil society. Wang had met some of them before. Others he knew only by reputation. There were environmentalists and journalists, businessmen and bloggers, and a generation of students too young to remember the pro-democracy movement of 1989 yet still inspired by its ideals. Wealthy entrepreneurs and well-known scholars stood shoulder to shoulder with humble farmers and laid-off factory workers. There was the labor activist Lu Kun, whose husband was in prison for starting a study group to discuss democratic reform, and the young AIDS activist Li Dan, who had clashed with the authorities to expose a hidden epidemic caused by local blood banks. There was Li Heping, one of several self-taught lawyers at the forefront of a campaign to protect the rights of ordinary citizens and force the party to obey its own laws. Wang remembered the missing faces, too, people whom the police had detained in recent days to prevent them from attending the funeral, including his old classmate Pu Zhiqiang, now a prominent freedom-of-speech lawyer, and the historian Ding Zilin, who lost a son in the massacre and was working with a group of mothers to compile a list of all those killed in Tiananmen.
Zhao’s death marked the end of an era in China. If the nation were ever to undergo the democratic transition he envisioned, it wouldn’t be because of one of Zhao’s timid successors in the Communist Party leadership. It would be because of these people who had come to his funeral — people who refused to forget the past and dared to work for a different future. Despite the pain of decades of violent political turmoil and the temptations of a flourishing and freewheeling economy — or perhaps precisely because of both — these people had not given up on Zhao’s vision of a more democratic China. On a day of mourning, Wang saw in them a glimmer of hope.
Copyright © 2008 by Philip P. Pan