'Too late'


IN IMPERIAL China, one of the first acts of new dynasties was to rewrite the history of the last dynasty. The minimal notice so far by China's state media of the death of former reformist leader Zhao Ziyang speaks volumes about the feudal strains in modern Chinese authoritarianism - and gives life to the nightmares haunting an insecure single-party state trying to control rising aspirations and a vast potential for unrest.

Within China, official mourning for the ousted former premier and party secretary, under house arrest since right before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, might unleash welled up cries for the long-denied reappraisal of that watershed slaughter of unarmed demonstrators - and highlight the lasting damage wrought by those murders on the Chinese Communist Party's claims to legitimacy.

Judgment day, and more, may well come. But for now, the official silence advertises that China's leaders still believe that whitewashing the truth of the 1989 protests - initially triggered by the death of another popular former leader, Hu Yaobang, but evolving into demands for greater democracy - is an essential component of their ability to continue in power. Even after 15 years of world-beating growth, attendant leaps in living standards and emergence as a global economic force, China's rulers still most fear its students and workers taking to the streets.

More than 15 years of house arrest turned Mr. Zhao into a symbol of dissent, but he was more of a neo-authoritarian, a reformer only in the Chinese context. He had a big hand in the agrarian reforms that first opened the Chinese economy, and more than other top leaders he advocated concomitant political reforms. Having lost a leadership battle over compromising with the Tiananmen protesters, his last public act was to visit them in the heart of Beijing, apologizing: "We came too late." Indeed, he had. Two weeks later, the tanks rolled in.

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