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China crops its history

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When Britain's Margaret Thatcher signed the 1984 agreement handing Hong Kong over to China, the man she signed it with was one of China's brightest lights, reform-minded premier Zhao Ziyang. It was a moment of great hope, with lots of pride and a sense that China, after years under the yoke of Mao Zedong, would become a forward-looking, less extreme state. Yet official photos of that signing now blur or diminish Zhao, or crop him out entirely.

Zhao, who opposed the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on student protest in 1989, and whose ideas prefigured China's economic rise, is still airbrushed out of Chinese history. Four days after his passing, after living under house arrest in Beijing for 15 years, state media has still given only four lines of comment, run next to a weather map, on the death of "comrade" Zhao.

Now Beijing's effort to silence discussion about Zhao at home has jumped the mainland's borders and landed in the heart of Hong Kong. The city is the only place on Chinese soil where Zhao can be publicly remembered. But a request Tuesday for a minute of silence for Zhao in the parliament here was ruled unconstitutional by the assembly president - outraging pro-democracy lawmakers. Wednesday they stood quietly for a minute, anyway. That caused pro-Beijing members to walk out, shutting down the legislature for the first time ever.

Reformers in Hong Kong say the ruling against Zhao is further evidence that the spirit of Hong Kong's agreed-to special autonomy is being violated. Thursday feeling ran deep among democrats that the dispute underscores a serious cultural distance between Hong Kong and Beijing, as the two sides get to know each other.

"I don't understand this ruling at all. As far as expressive politics in Hong Kong are concerned, this [moment of silence] is an act of humanity and basic decency," says Margaret Ng, a lawyer and parliamentarian.

Yet the repressive handling of Zhao's death raises even more basic questions inside China: Can China, which often berates Japan for a lack of honesty about World War II, develop the normal exchange of views that open societies enjoy?

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