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China maintains tight control at Zhao funeral

Worker puts up poster of late Zhao Ziyang in Hong Kong
A democracy activist in Hong Kong on Jan. 17 puts up a poster showing the last public appearance of former Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, talking with student protesters in May 1989, just before the Tiananmen crackdown. Bobby Yip / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

China held a tightly controlled memorial for Zhao Ziyang on Saturday, barring dissidents and reporters from a government cemetery as relatives mourned the former Communist Party leader who was ousted in 1989 after sympathizing with democracy activists.

Political activists were confined at home as Zhao’s family gathered at the walled Babaoshan Cemetery on Beijing’s west side — the main burial site for China’s revolutionary heroes.

Some 2,000 mourners were on a government-approved guest list, according to Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based activist who was in contact with Zhao’s family.

At least one member of China’s current leadership attended the memorial, the government announced. Zhao’s body was cremated after the memorial service, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Chinese state television on Saturday broadcast the first official obituary for the ousted Communist Party leader, saying he made “serious mistakes” during the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

Closely controlled ceremony
The government was anxious to avoid stirring up memories of Zhao, who helped launch China’s economic boom but later was accused of endangering communist rule. He became a symbol of hopes for democratic change with his sympathy for the Tiananmen Square protesters.

At the cemetery, security agents demanded identification from mourners. Reporters who entered with passes given out by Zhao’s family were ordered to leave. Hundreds of police and security agents patrolled streets up to a quarter-mile away.

Zhao, who died Jan. 17 at age 85, spent his last 15 years under house arrest.

Details of funeral plans weren’t released, but relatives said earlier there would might be no eulogy or speeches — possibly due to a dispute over whether the official account of Zhao’s life would say his actions in 1989 were a mistake.

The government didn’t tell the Chinese public of plans for the memorial service.

Police kept many activists at home Friday and told them they wouldn’t be allowed to attend the memorial, according to Lu.

Veteran dissident Ren Wanding, who spent 11 years in prison, told The Associated Press that his apartment was under surveillance and he didn’t expect to be allowed out during the memorial.

Scant mention of death
In contrast to the deaths of other Chinese leaders, which are given lavish coverage by state media, Zhao’s passing was initially announced in a two-sentence official report. The government has suppressed other mention of him in the press. After a brief flurry of comments on the day of his death, talk of Zhao on the country’s Internet bulletin boards has been erased by censors.

Jia Qinglin, a member of the party’s ruling nine-member Standing Committee, attended the memorial service “on behalf of the leaders of the central authorities ... to bid farewell to the remains of Comrade Zhao and expressed condolences to his families,” Xinhua said. It said other “senior officials” also attended but didn’t give details.

Zhao helped to launch China’s reforms in the 1980s as premier and then party leader under then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, opening his nation to the world and letting millions lift themselves out of poverty.

But he fell out of favor with Deng and was purged on June 24, 1989, after the military crushed the student-led protests, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people. More conservative rivals turned on him, and he was accused of “splitting the party” by expressing sympathy with the demonstrators’ demands for political change.

Crackdown defended
Following his death, the government defended the crackdown and Zhao’s purge, indicating that any official mourning would be muted.

The family and the government also are at odds over Zhao’s final resting place.

Relatives want Zhao’s ashes interred in the section of the Babaoshan cemetery for state leaders, Lu said. If they aren’t, he said, the family plans to take them home.

Among those who have been barred: Jiang Yanyong, a military surgeon who has petitioned the government to admit it made mistakes in its 1989 assault; Liu Xiaobo, an academic imprisoned after leading a hunger strike among intellectuals in 1989 in support of the demonstrators; and Ding Zilin, a spokeswoman for the group Tiananmen Mothers, which represents families of those killed in 1989.

Wang Lingyun, the mother of Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 protests, was invited by Zhao’s family, but the government barred her after realizing who she was, Lu said.

Bao Tong, Zhao’s former secretary, also was unlikely to be allowed to attend, Lu added.