Deposed reformist shows first signs of a comeback

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The Independent Online
Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party leader deposed during the 1989 democracy protests, appears to be taking the first steps towards a political comeback, according to reports in a Hong Kong newspaper.

Yesterday's Hong Kong Standard states that Mr Zhao arrived in Shanghai, China's biggest city, over the weekend in a special train with "several members of his personal entourage and more than a dozen security personnel". The report quotes witnesses as saying that security was as tight as that provided for state leaders.

It is not clear what Mr Zhao is doing in Shanghai. He is said not to be meeting senior officials but to be having discussions with more junior cadres alongside visits to state-run companies to study how they are coming to terms with China's economic reform programme.

Mr Zhao was forced out of office after showing sympathy for the democracy protesters and arguing against the hard-line which lead to the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1987 he was hand-picked by the late Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, as the nation's new leader.

Deng shared Mr Zhao's enthusiasm for economic reform but bitterly opposed his support for political reform.

The deposed leader has made no public appearance for almost eight years, although he has been seen playing golf and was rumoured to have made a tour of the South some three years ago, although this was never confirmed.

Last month Mr Zhao asked for permission to attend Deng's funeral. His request was turned down. President Jiang Zemin, the Communist Party leader, is reported to have issued an order for Mr Zhao to remain in isolation, although he is not under house arrest, as some sources have stated.

Last week Hong Kong's Chinese language Apple Daily newspaper published what it said was the text of a letter sent by Mr Zhao to Mr Jiang and the committee preparing the Communist Party Congress, expected to be held this autumn. Mr Zhao sharply criticises the emergence of a personality cult around Mr Jiang, suggesting that the image of a collective leadership is a mirage.

Mr Zhao is also quoted as criticising the new leaders for back-tracking on economic reform and raising the delicate subject of the Tiananmen massacre. Like a number of other influential Chinese personalities, Mr Zhao is calling for a reassessment of the 1989 crackdown.

It is hard to believe that Mr Jiang would allow such an unrepentant critic to return to the fold. However, the President is facing more overt criticism from leftist hardliners and may feel the need to make a gesture to Mr Zhao as a way of keeping the Communist Party's reformist wing onside.

Zhao Ziyang is hardly the liberal politician he is fondly imagined to be by some Western politicians but for the past decade he has been the most articulate and forceful advocate of reform within the Communist context. Like Deng Xiaoping, who suffered exile for being a reformist during the Cultural Revolution, Mr Zhao may yet emerge as a rallying point for reformists in the new era.

As ever the bulk of the information about the power struggle in Peking is percolating through to Hong Kong which, for the time being, retains its position as the main source of "unofficial" information about Chinese affairs. Whether this will continue after 1 July, when China resumes sovereignty, is in question.