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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 14:47 GMT
Beijingers mourn Zhao - warily

By Louisa Lim
BBC News, Beijing

"My father is finally free", was the text message sent by Zhao Ziyang's daughter, Wang Yannan, to family friends.

She was referring to the 15 years the former party leader had spent under house arrest.

Chinese security guard on Tiananmen Square
Security has been stepped up around Tiananmen Square

His secretary, Bao Tong, condemned the government's treatment of Zhao, accusing officials of making "a systematic attempt to erase Zhao Ziyang's name from history".

And the official response to Zhao's passing seems to bear this out.

The state-run newspapers and main television bulletins have not yet mentioned the death of the man who was once one of the most powerful figures in the country.

The official Xinhua news agency carried a short despatch saying that Comrade Zhao had passed away.

This has not yet, however, been picked up by television or radio stations, indicating that the party could fear the implications of the news reaching every household across the country.

The official blackout on the former leader's death means that the news has largely been disseminated by the internet.

His generation of leaders contributed a lot to the country. There used to be a saying, 'If you want food, find Ziyang'
Beijing resident

Bulletin boards have been the main outlet for citizens wanting to voice their opinions, and most of the postings have been written in sorrow.

"Time will vindicate him," said one. "We will miss you forever," said another. "Why can't we mourn a person's passing?" asked a third.

All were deleted speedily by chatroom monitors.

Muted grief

On the streets there has been a mixed reaction.

Among the young, many people had never even heard of Zhao Ziyang.

"I was very young at that time. I don't really understand what his contribution was," said 25-year-old businessman Mr Wu. "I just knew he was the premier, but I wasn't really interested in politics."

Zhao's record as a pragmatic economic reformer means that older people feel gratitude towards him.

One 55-year-old, who refused to be named, said: "His generation of leaders contributed a lot to the country. There used to be a saying, 'If you want food, find Ziyang'. I am sorry but I cannot talk about Tiananmen. That's something I can't really talk about."

A 50-year-old woman, Mrs Zhou, also expressed her sorrow, saying: "I am really sorry he's died. In my heart, I feel sad because we have lost a good comrade and a good leader. You cannot ignore the influence he's had on economic development."

Zhao still stands for the downtrodden, for the idea of justice that apply to new social issues. And so as a symbol, he could still be dangerous
Andrew Nathan

Since Zhao's death, the authorities have stepped up security at Tiananmen Square and at his house.

On Monday morning, paramilitary armed police and regular officers were patrolling the entrances to the square as well as every subway exit.

They want to prevent any displays of grief for a man who has officially been in disgrace for 15 years.

In the past, displays of grief for reformist leaders have served as an outlet for protests about the current leadership. In fact the huge protests in 1989 that led to Zhao Ziyang's downfall spiralled out of mourning for another leader, Hu Yaobang.

Columbia University's Andrew Nathan, co-editor of the Tiananmen Papers, told the BBC that Zhao Ziyang's long absence from public life had not neutered his symbolism.

"In China people can sometimes not be mentioned for years and years, and in turns out they're in everybody's minds," he said.

"I know that China has changed a great deal, and it's not the China of 1989. But a lot of those changes have brought in new elements of social tension, new groups of dissatisfied people in society. So as a symbol, Zhao still stands for the downtrodden, for the idea of justice that applies to new social issues.

"And so as a symbol, he could still be dangerous," he said.

For the government, one of the main dilemmas now will be what sort of funeral to give the party leader who fell from favour.

One human rights activist, Frank Lu, said family members told him that Vice Premier Zeng Qinghong visited Zhao Ziyang on his deathbed.

That would indicate the close attention the top leadership has been paying to the fate of their former colleague.


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