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China’s leaders grapple with funeral quandary

Mourners light up candles during a candlelight vigil for the late Zhao Ziyang in Hong Kong
Mourners light candles in front of an altar for the late former Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang during a candlelight vigil Friday in Hong Kong, the only city in China where public mourning of Zhao is not banned.  Bobby Yip / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

Nine days after the death of Zhao Ziyang, negotiations are deadlocked over funeral arrangements for the former Communist Party chief who was deposed and placed under house arrest for opposing the army crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.

“The issue is complicated and presents our top leaders with a headache,” said a Chinese source familiar with the government’s handling of the case.

“There is disagreement with Zhao’s family on the evaluation of his career and on the specific resting place for his remains,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The original plan was to hold the funeral [Monday], but it was canceled due to disagreements.”

Government officials have been tight-lipped in public. “We are discussing [the issue] with Zhao Ziyang’s family and handling it properly,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a press briefing on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, security has been tightened around the family courtyard residence, a mile north of Tiananmen Square and where Zhao’s children have set up a mourning hall for relatives and friends to pay their last respects.

Ghosts of Tiananmen Square
The death of Zhao Ziyang, after more than 15 years of house arrest for “supporting the turmoil” of 1989, poses the first major political test for the new Chinese leadership of President Hu Jintao. Hu is a direct beneficiary of the post-Tiananmen leadership succession plan.

Hu is presiding over breakneck economic growth in China, but also over wrenching changes to the lives of tens of millions of people, especially in the countryside, where many have been made jobless. It's an expansion that has been coupled with a rise in civil protests nationwide.

Now Zhao’s death threatens to reopen the divisive issue of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and could well be used to launch new anti-government protests, some analysts said. 

The death of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai triggered bloody riots in Tiananmen Square in 1976, while the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations were precipitated by the death of liberal-leaning party leader Hu Yaobang.

“There’s dispute at the top on how to handle Zhao’s death, but for now the majority are with Hu Jintao and support stability and the party’s verdict on Tiananmen,” said one Chinese source with connections to top military officials.  “It would be impossible to grant the demand for Zhao’s political rehabilitation,” the source added.

Former party leader strayed from the ranks
Zhao, China’s premier for seven years and party head for two years until 1989, was one of the key top protégés of Deng Xiaoping who implemented and substantiated the economic reform program — starting with agricultural reforms that liberated hundreds of millions of peasants from the collectivist shackles of Maoist people’s communes. “If you want grain, look for Ziyang” became a popular saying in the ’80s as the reforms spurred greater productivity.

Zhao’s leadership exploits also are associated with the pioneering “special economic zones” for attracting foreign investments, the dismantling of the command economy and the reorganization of China’s state enterprises along market lines.

The separation of Communist Party functions from government and business operations, and the successful pursuit of the “coastal strategy,” which eventually propelled China’s manufacturing centers to become export powerhouses in the global market, are also progressive moves associated with Zhao's regime.

The 1989 Tiananmen crisis, generated by massive student-led pro-democracy demonstrations, led to the parting of ways between Zhao and his mentor. Zhao was part of the dissenting minority opposed to the decision to use military force against the Tiananmen protesters. 

“Comrade Zhao Ziyang committed the serious mistake of supporting the turmoil and splitting the party,” concluded a central leadership report in the aftermath of the crackdown.

Family will not allow history to be rewritten
In the mourning hall of Zhao’s family residence, a white banner reads, “It’s our honor to be your sons and daughter. Supporting your decision is our unchanged choice.”

According to family friends, Zhao’s children are “firmly opposed” to citing Zhao’s “serious mistakes” in any obituary, or demand that the facts of his house arrest be mentioned if reference to such “mistakes” is included.

The government has reportedly agreed that a memorial service will be held at Beijing’s Babaoshan Cemetery for Revolutionary Martyrs, but the level of funeral honors and the exact resting place for Zhao’s remains are still unresolved.

There are different memorial halls for different levels of state leaders and for ordinary people. 

Placing Zhao’s remains in the same hall as Deng and other former top leaders, or in some other hall, could send “a political message with serious implications,” according to one knowledgeable source. 

Zhao’s children are “steadfast” in their demand for their father’s political rehabilitation, according to a family friend, who suggested that the family has leverage in accordance with Chinese law and customs. 

Only the family will have the right to sign on for the final cremation and funeral for Zhao, said the source, suggesting that there could be protracted negotiations.

Ancient past for ordinary Chinese
For most ordinary Chinese, however, Tiananmen and Zhao Ziyang have become distant memory. 

“Most people are busy enough trying to find a job or make a living and don’t care much about politics,” said entrepreneur Li Jinhai.

“Most people don’t remember Zhao Ziyang anymore, but I will always remember him in the depth of my heart,” said a Beijing engineer who requested not to be named.

“Zhao Ziyang respected human rights and respected democracy, and for this he left a very deep impression in me,” declared Hu Jia, a human rights activist.