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Chinese leaders face dilemma over eulogizing Zhao

BEIJING—A week-old deadlock over how to eulogize ousted Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang—or whether to eulogize him at all—dragged on Monday with no public announcement on when his family would be allowed to bury him.

The deadlock underscored the dilemma China's leaders are in as they search for a political epitaph to give Zhao, a reformer who was tossed aside in 1989 after he sought to avert the killing of masses of pro-democracy students protesting in Beijing's central square.

President Hu Jintao appears dead-set against altering the official position that Zhao committed a "grave mistake" by siding with the students during the run-up to what's now known as the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Friends said Zhao's family objected over the weekend to a draft statement that Communist Party leaders hoped to issue at his funeral. The statement omitted any reappraisal of Zhao's role during the 1989 uprising and of his efforts to deepen political and economic reform before he was purged.

Zhao, 85, died Jan. 17 at a Beijing hospital. He'd been under house arrest for the past 15 years in his modest traditional courtyard house in central Beijing.

Chinese custom calls for the deceased to be buried within a week, and for surviving kin to agree with authorities on appropriate ways to pay due homage.

"When people die, you have to honor them. That's a Chinese tradition. You must have a funeral. But the question is what kind of funeral you will have," said Zheng Yongnian, a China expert at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.

Deciding that matter has put Hu and other party leaders in a quandary. They fear that a misstep could provoke a public backlash from the family, incite those who think Zhao was paid insufficient honor as a former party chairman or draw attention to the Tiananmen massacre.

Several Hong Kong newspapers suggested Monday that authorities would conduct low-key funeral rites but skip any public eulogy for Zhao.

Plainclothes police officers swarmed alleyways leading to the Zhao family compound, stopping anyone from approaching to pay respects.

A close family friend, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the funeral "definitely won't be tomorrow. ... Many things haven't been decided yet."

Some observers asserted that whatever funeral rites are finally permitted—and how they are carried out—will send signals about the political climate in China. This puts pressure on Premier Wen Jiabao and on Hu, who consolidated his grip on power in September by becoming military commander as well as party chairman and president.

"Their ideal way is to do nothing: no funeral, no ceremony, no public document," said Wu Guoguang, a former speechwriter for Zhao who now teaches at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. "But there is pressure from public opinion. And a lot of people within the Communist Party, particularly former leaders who worked with Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s, are also sympathetic to his movement."

As premier from 1980 to 1987, and party chairman until his ouster in 1989, Zhao implemented market reforms and ordered senior party officials to be more accountable to the rank and file. He was in line to succeed then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping when the Tiananmen demonstrations erupted in the spring of 1989.

Days before June 4, when soldiers killed hundreds if not thousands of protesters, Zhao pleaded with the students to go home and avoid bloodshed. It was his last public appearance.

The ruling Communist Party has refused to allow a reappraisal or public discussion about the uprising. Many urban young people today know nothing about it.

"The party central committee has made a positive assessment of Zhao's contribution to economic and party reform," said Li Rui, a retired senior party official. "However, it has great differences with Zhao's family members over the appraisal of the June 4 incident."

In a quirk of fate, another senior party official, Song Renqiong, died earlier this month. Song had supported crushing the Tiananmen protests. Hu and other party leaders attended his cremation.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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