If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears, does it make a sound? Apparently that’s what the leadership was testing with the death of Zhao Ziyang – to the extent that it could. Handling the passing of the Communist Party chief who wept before students in Tiananmen Square on May 19, 1989, when he knew it was too late to stop the army from ending the protests, was highly sensitive.
The party kept news coverage in China to a bare minimum, issuing a one line Xinhua item when he died on Jan. 17, and a small obituary noting his “serious mistakes” in 1989 after he was cremated. Reporters who looked foreign or were carrying cameras were kept away from his home, although a few Asian journalists were able to sneak in. And even most correspondents with invitations from the Zhao family to attend the scaled-back funeral at Babaoshan were turned away by security forces – who were posted at tight intervals for kilometers along the road to the cemetery.
In hotels, foreign newspapers with stories on Zhao’s life and death arrived late. And obituaries and other reports on CNN and the BBC were – predictably – blacked out. But some Chinese still chose to express their grief on the internet, along with some anger about how a former Chinese leader had been treated. Their messages were removed within minutes after being posted – but the point was made – Zhao had not been completely forgotten, and the issues surrounding his fall from power are far from dead.