Skip to navigationSkip to content
Reuters/New Century Media
Zhao Ziyang in the garden of his home in central Beijing in 1994

A decade after his death, China’s forgotten economic reformer will finally receive a proper burial

By Lily Kuo

The ashes of former Chinese general secretary Zhao Ziyang—a reformist leader best known for supporting Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters in 1989—are finally being laid to rest. After a decade of arguing with Zhao’s relatives over where to bury his remains, officials finally told his family this week that they can bury the late leader next to his wife, who died in 2013.

Zhao died in 2005 and was quickly cremated but officials worried that a burial would inspire the kind of public outpouring that the funerals of other former leaders have caused—notably Hu Yaobang, whose memorial sparked the Tiananmen protests in the first place. They also worried that Zhao’s grave site could turn into a pilgrimage site. His ashes have been kept in the family garden ever since; the exact details of where they will be buried are yet to be released.

The reformist leader is best known for supporting protests that ended in the brutal crackdown of June 4, a decision that resulted in him being stripped of power and kept under house arrest until he died of a stroke in 2005. He publicly begged students to leave the square and opposed declaring martial law. Since his ouster, the party has sought to erase him from the public memory.

AP Photo/Xinhua
Zhao Ziyang in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on May 19, 1989, begging student to call off their hunger strike.

Zhao has been largely overlooked in his crucial role in crafting many of the most important economic and market reforms that are now credited to Deng Xiaoping. “We can’t talk about the reforms and their impact on China, and also its rise as an economic power, without mentioning Zhao,” said Eberhard Sandschneider, a China specialist and director at the German Council of Foreign Relations, earlier this year.

That includes undoing the agricultural commune system and letting farmers sell their products in the free market, pushing coastal cities to become manufacturing centers, and setting the stage for China’s entrance to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 by establishing a relationship with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a precursor to the WTO.

Zhao believed that economic reform would be the answer to China’s problems but only if they were implemented along with political reform. His ideas may have arrived too early, but for now he can at least rest in peace.