The disgraced Chinese communist leader Zhao Ziyang, who died in January, lived in the seclusion imposed on him by his successors. They made sure that his death would be as much of a non-event as they could manage. There was some expectation that Zhao’s death might become a catalyst for popular protest as was the case when Zhou Enlai died in January 1976 and Hu Yaobang in April 1989. Hu’s death triggered the democracy protests leading to the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989.
Zhao’s efforts to moderate the party’s violent response to the protesters were overruled, and he was dismissed from all posts for “supporting the turmoil.” He spent the rest of his life under virtual house arrest.
One might well ask: Why did his death pass virtually unnoticed in China? There is a view among China scholars, encouraged by the Chinese authorities, that politics has been subsumed by economics. In other words, the Chinese people are mesmerized by the country’s growth and have no time for politics.
As one Australian scholar has argued, in the context of how even Mao has been commodified, “What we are witnessing, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck would argue, is a very political form of depoliticization. In this sense, one can indeed say that political reform has been visited upon China. It came, however, not in the form of institutional transformation of the state-based political system that swept away the Communist Party, but in a far subtler yet profoundly life-transforming manner. No longer are people enthralled by the political, or even intimidated by it.” This view amounts to a sort of “end of history” argument, as if to say that China’s communist leadership have perfected their system so that they can rule forever. The problem with it is that China’s rulers find it necessary to go to extraordinary lengths to control dissent and protest. If people were so politically apathetic, the regime would not need to ban political dissent and protest, or to outlaw religious movements like Falun Gong.