His proposal to match economic with political reforms is still a valid one. Zhao is also remembered for having reopened Catholic churches and for having given religious freedom.
Now that Zhao Ziyang is dead, it will be a big job for the Beijing government to remove all memory of him. Up to this morning, Chinese Internet sites, forums and chat sites were flooded with news and comments. But, in the matter of a few minutes, all the Internet pages that referred to him had been blocked. All that remains is Xinhua's spare press release. When Zhao Ziyang was alive, authorities in Beijing did whatever it could to stifle him: no one was allowed to interview him; there was continuous police surveillance around his home; visitors were vetted. Only on a few occasions was he allowed to leave house arrest to go visit old friends in Guangdong, where in the past he had been secretary and where he had begun those reforms that made the special economic zones the backbone of China's economic revival.
The point is precisely this: today's China, with the world's greatest economic growth, owes its first steps in liberalism to Zhao himself. It was he who introduced agriculture reforms in Sichuan, breaking up the sterile communes and entrusting the use of land to families. Within two or three years, agricultural production increased by 400%. And it was he who set the stage for "socialism with Chinese characteristics", opening up to liberalism and going beyond the centralized structures of the Maoist economy. Party annals praise Deng Xiaoping as "the architect of modernization", but the first steps, those breaking with the past, are due to Zhao and to his predecessor, Hu Yaobang.
Apart from economic reforms, Zhao Ziyang had also proposed political reforms of a liberal nature, such as separating state and party; adopting basic democracy, tackling corruption by separating state powers (legislative, judicial and executive) and removing these from the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Zhao Ziyang's period as CCP Secretary General was one of the most liberal also from the intellectual point of view, characterized as it was by lively pluralism in theatre, cinema, painting and sculpture. Even religion experienced an unprecedented renaissance: the reopening of Catholic churches, Christians gathering for mass in churches, a strong reawakening of Buddhist temples and traditional festivities in the countryside.
It is true however that today's China is a product of Deng. For love of so-called "stability", Deng chose to stand against political reform and, to the students and workers who called for democracy and a halt to corruption, he answered with martial laws and the Tiananmen massacre. Since then, the "stability" (of CCP power) has always had the upper hand over any human right and the only democracy allowed is "democratic centralism" that affirms the party's supremacy in all fields.
Today's China is the poor result of these incomplete reforms: the rich and entrepreneurs acclaimed by the Party; workers and farmers treated like slaves; endemic corruption that has reached 14% of gross national product, religions controlled in their every activity, bishops imprisoned. The more the government insists on stability without human rights, the more farmers and workers protest in Guangdong, Shanxi, Mongolia and Shandong. In all this, Zhao had been a prophet: economic and political reforms must go hand in hand, otherwise everything risks falling apart. According to many Chinese analysts, the country is on the verge collapse and social unrest risks setting the stage for a clash 100 times more violent than the massacre at Tiananmen. Unless Zhao, with his death, instead of being cancelled from memory, becomes the occasion for some soul-searching that inspires a new link between political and economic development.