The Chinese government on Tuesday firmly defended its decision 15 years ago to order a military assault on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and oust the Communist Party leader who objected, turning down appeals to reassess the crackdown and rehabilitate Zhao Ziyang a day after his death.
"The political disturbance and the problem of Zhao himself has already passed. What happened in 1989 has reached its conclusion," Kong Quan, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a regular briefing. Citing the rapid growth of the Chinese economy since the Tiananmen massacre, he added: "The past 15 years have shown China's decision was correct."
Zhao, who was placed under house arrest after refusing to endorse the crackdown, died Monday at age 85 following several strokes. His death has presented the Chinese government with a dilemma, forcing it to balance the need to show respect to a man who once served as the party's top leader against the desire to avoid opening a debate about the assault on Tiananmen, in which hundreds and perhaps thousands of people were killed.
The ruling Communist Party usually marks the death of senior leaders with elaborate, widely publicized memorial services, as well as official obituaries that evaluate their contributions to party and nation. But such public honors for Zhao could stir painful memories of the massacre, and the leadership appears to have decided to deny them to him.
Kong said he had no information about whether the government was planning a state funeral. State television and radio refrained a second day from reporting his death, and the capital's newspapers carried only one-sentence news items that neglected even to note his service as China's premier and party general secretary in the 1980s.
"Mr. Zhao made some meaningful contributions for the country, but he made a big mistake during the incident in the spring of 1989," Chen Zuoer, an official involved in Hong Kong affairs, told reporters in Beijing. "The relevant departments of the central government will handle the arrangement of commemorative activities or a funeral with Mr. Zhao's family and relatives."
Wading into a dispute brewing in Hong Kong, Chen also said it would be unconstitutional for legislators there to pass resolutions mourning Zhao. Rita Fan, the pro-Beijing legislative president, denied requests by lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung that the council observe a minute of silence in Zhao's memory and hold a debate on his contributions to Hong Kong.
"Nowhere else in China can events to commemorate Mr. Zhao be held," Leung said. "Hong Kong people should not give up that right so easily."
In Beijing, Zhao's family said through friends that they had not yet heard from the government about funeral arrangements and were beginning to plan a private service. The family also set up a memorial hall inside their home and opened it to the public.
Security around the house was tight during the day, but by evening the atmosphere was more relaxed, and a steady stream of mourners made their way through the traditional courtyard compound where Zhao had spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest.
Beyond large red doors, elaborate wreaths of white and yellow chrysanthemums graced with black and white ribbons carrying messages of condolence lined two inner courtyards. Plainclothes officers watched as visitors pinned on white flowers and signed a guest book in one courtyard, then entered a small study brimming with memorial wreaths.
One by one, the mourners stepped forward and bowed before a portrait of Zhao on the wall. Then they visited quietly with family members dressed in black.
Others were prevented from paying their respects, including Bao Tong, a former aide who was the highest-ranking official jailed in the 1989 crackdown. When he, his wife and his daughter attempted to leave their apartment building, more than 20 plainclothes security agents shoved them back inside and into the elevator, family members said.
Bao's 73-year-old wife, Jiang Zongcao, was pushed to the ground during the scuffle and suffered a fracture in a vertebra, relatives said. Her daughter took her to a hospital, and doctors said she would need to stay in bed at least eight weeks to recuperate.
Relatives said Bao was hurt, too, spraining a wrist and a finger, but security agents would not let him see a doctor unless he removed a white flower pinned to his shirt and a black armband, traditional Chinese symbols of mourning. He refused.
Researcher Zhang Jing in Beijing and special correspondent K.C. Ng in Hong Kong contributed to this report.