When depicted in economic terms, experts say, China appears more liberal and open. Yet as a political entity, recent behaviors suggest the Communist Party and the new leadership of Hu Jintao may be more authoritarian than once thought.
The Tiananmen event was a watershed that set China on the path to economic reform, leaving political changes to be settled later. Those issues run directly through Zhao's life and role as a No. 1 leader in late 20th-century China. Scholars outside China, diplomats, and exiled intellectuals almost universally see Zhao as a figure who advocated both political and economic reform, and whose historical place must be dealt with at some point. But Chinese officials say their world-beating growth rate vindicates Zhao's arrest.
Zhao's famed willingness to go down into the square to meet students in 1989 sealed his legacy as beloved of the people - one reason the atmosphere in Beijing Thursday was said to be tense, and why Tiananmen Square had been cleared for the first time since the Falun Gong protests several years ago. Some sources indicate that Beijing officials are now considering a modest state funeral.
Apart from Tuesday's four-line obituary, no mention of Zhao is heard on state TV or in newspapers. Chinese Internet chat rooms are being monitored and messages regarding Zhao erased. Earlier this week, Chinese hoping to visit and pay respects at Zhao's home were turned away or asked to register with state police.
Thursday, both the Zhao home and Tiananmen Square were awash in plainclothes security. Police were no longer registering Chinese visiting the home, but a team was inside filming every visitor. Zhao's aid, Bao Tong, remains under house arrest.
The US State Department issued a glowing remembrance of Zhao through spokesman Richard Boucher, calling him a "a champion of reform at a time of momentous change in China.... We well remember that in 1989, in Tiananmen Square, Mr. Zhao went directly to the people of China, listened to their views, and engaged with them in a discussion about their desire for democracy."