by Patrick Nohrden
Note: Since this article first published in January 2005, world political and political situations have changed. Some things never change.
Many cultures believe that the end of one event marks the beginning of something new. Like spring, the death of winter brings forth the blossoms of new hope and new beginnings. Perhaps that is why the Chinese culture marks the beginning of their year with what they often call the Spring Festival. Although not the beginning of spring according to western astronomical standards, the Chinese New Year, which begins the Spring Festival, marks the point where the days begin to be less cold and the sun sets later in the western sky.
But it is that western sky which Chinese leaders fear the most, not so much the warming days but the new opportunities that come from looking beyond the traditional, beyond the rules of an established society. Today in China marks the death of Zhao Ziyang, the symbol of the new spring.
Most of my former students in China probably know little about Zhao Ziyang. He was for a short time the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who vowed to modernize China, who created a Chinese middle class, and who first brought western ideas to China in an attempt to develop his country. Most of my students were five or six years old when on May 19, 1989, he gave an impassioned and tearful speech to the students amassed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing to persuade them to disperse and go home.
That was Zhao Ziyang’s most critical mistake in his political career. The next day, he was sacked and ordered into house arrest until he died. Shortly thereafter, Jiang Zemin, the Chairman of the Military who enforced his house arrest, stormed Tiananmen Square with tanks, and on June 3 and 4, 1989, killed hundreds of student protesters. This marked the end of any hope of western style democracy taking root in Communist China.
But now that Zhao Ziyang has died, there is bound to be a new savior of the Chinese people. It is bound to happen. With China’s burgeoning market economy and the obvious spoils of the prolifically growing upper class, the workers and the farmers, once the heroes of China’s revolution, are starting to take note. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider than it has ever before. Farmers and workers are not allowed to be rich. They cannot migrate to the cities, start businesses, and engage in commerce. They are too poor. With an average monthly wage of 50 to 100 RMB ($6-$12), they cannot afford the fee to change the registration of their residence, which is typically around $6,000. They cannot afford the fee for a manufacturing license. They cannot even take a job outside of their village.
At some point somebody will ask “Why not?” It will not be students demonstrating on Tiananmen Square. It will be farmers demonstrating in all of the cities of China, demanding their right to have their own opportunity to prosper. And instead of posters of Mao Zedong, they will be displaying the image of Zhao Ziyang.
Oh yes. Spring is in the air in China.