Jeffrey LewisZhao Ziyang Ailing

Zhao Ziyang is reportedly near death. The New York Times hits the high notes:

Anointed as a successor to Deng Xiaoping, the country/’s paramount leader, Mr. Zhao favored a relatively bold pace of political and economic reform. His hold on power weakened when the mainly state-run economy overheated, causing high inflation, and students organized peaceful but large-scale demonstrations in the heart of the capital.

Mr. Zhao/’s last public appearance came on May 19, 1989, when he made an impromptu visit to Tiananmen Square, where the protests were centered. He pleaded with students to leave the square, apologizing for having arrived “too late” and warning them that the police planned to remove them by force.

Martial law was declared the next day and Mr. Zhao was stripped of power, to be replaced a short time later by Mr. Jiang, who had been mayor of Shanghai.

There have been signs of divergent approaches to political and economic management since Mr. Hu took power in late 2002. But the fissures are not viewed as wide enough for some leadership faction to try to use the Tiananmen incident as leverage to tar opponents or grab power.

Nonetheless, it remains possible that lower-level party officials, or students or intellectuals outside the party, may make Mr. Zhao/’s death an occasion to press for political liberalization. China/’s long tradition of paying homage to the dead makes it unseemly for the police to repress mourners, potentially opening a window for people to express grievances along with condolences.

In fact, the 1989 demonstrations first gathered steam after the death of the reform-minded leader who preceded Mr. Zhao as Communist Party chief, Hu Yaobang, who died 15 years ago this month.

I leave for the Symposium on the Sustainability of Space Technology and Resources in Beijing on Sunday.