Zhao Remembered, but Cautiously ; in Beijing Saturday, Mourners Braved Police Presence to Pay Respects at Purged Premier's Funeral

By Robert Marquand writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2005 | Go to article overview

Zhao Remembered, but Cautiously ; in Beijing Saturday, Mourners Braved Police Presence to Pay Respects at Purged Premier's Funeral


Robert Marquand writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Wang Bei tried to attend former Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang's funeral on Saturday. He even got an invitation from the Zhao family. But professor Wang, not a dissident and not even very well known, was stopped at his door by Chinese security, taken to a distant suburb - and only let go hours after the funeral.

China continues to treat former premier Zhao Ziyang, who sided with pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square, as irrelevant to modern China. For the first time ever, no eulogy was given at the funeral of a former No. 1 leader. Yet the massive size of the largely invisible security campaign to minimize Zhao's unpublicized funeral, involving thousands of police and security, and a similar phalanx of Web and news censors, and informers - suggests that the Communist Party of China remains fearful of the popular memory of the man.

After two weeks of a virtual blackout on Zhao's death and wrangling between family members and officials over his legacy, Zhao's service took place on a unusually clear and cold morning at Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in west Beijing. Some 1,500 Chinese braved the weather and police to walk around a bier and bow three times in honor of Zhao. No foreign reporters were allowed. Many attendees said on the way out that they had come secretly to avoid retribution by employers.

The service coincided with a celebrated and nationally televised departure of the first Chinese airliner to fly directly to Taiwan. Front pages of most Beijing newspapers heralded the flights. Papers ran on inside pages the state news agency's brief report on Zhao's cremation.

Zhao was arrested just prior to the infamous June 4, 1989, massacre of students and workers here. An innovativereformer, Zhao had been a thorn in the side of Chinese leaders ever since, living under strict house arrest and allowed no interviews since '89.

Now, the message offered by public intellectuals, dissidents, and from many ordinary Chinese is that the handling of Zhao's death and his service on Saturday indicates the kind of society China has become in the past five years.

"The handling of Zhao's funeral speaks loudly about China. In our post-totalitarian system, you are allowed to choose from many brands of washing machines and refrigerators. It is a consumer paradise. But there are fewer and fewer choices about what can be said in public," says one well-known intellectual who was warned by a supervisor not to attend Zhao's funeral. The individual decided to go anyway. But out on the street at 7:30 a.m., he was confronted by his immediate boss and politely told to go home and stay home.

"Many people hoped for some reconciliation by our leaders after Zhao died, but this did not happen," says the high-profile intellectual.

In a way, argue some of these thinkers, China has become a successful version of a future that Zhao opposed - since he felt civic and political reforms could take place in tandem with economic reforms.

As the drama of Zhao's memory and passing unfolded for two weeks of indecision and tensions, many Chinese pointed to the dynamics around the little courtyard home of Zhao itself as representing China's contradictions.

The home sits in an old hutong neighborhood of gray one-story homes of the type now being rapidly torn down.

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