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China permits low-key funeral for purged party leader Zhao

BEIJING—Amid a vast cloak of security, Chinese authorities on Saturday permitted a quick funeral for former Premier Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted as leader of the Communist Party for opposing an army crackdown of pro-democracy protesters in 1989.

Authorities imposed a news blackout on the funeral, and hundreds of police kept dissidents away from the Babaoshan cemetery for revolutionary heroes.

Some 2,000 well-wishers attended the rites for Zhao, who died Jan. 17 at age 85, but the Communist Party sent no senior members to the ceremony, a sign that Zhao is still considered a radioactive figure.

"There was no speech. People were not allowed to take photographs," said Jin Lei, a former neighbor of Zhao who attended the funeral.

The low-key funeral ended nearly two weeks of tussling between Zhao's family and authorities over whether the party would rebuff Zhao in an official eulogy for what the government has called his "grave mistakes" during the 1989 student uprising. In the end, no eulogy was delivered.

A statement was expected later in the day from Xinhua, the state news agency, concerning Zhao's legacy. But party actions in recent days made clear that the government is fearful that Zhao's death could spark protests.

Zhao rose in party ranks to become premier in 1980, implementing market reforms that transformed China's inefficient economy into an engine for world economic growth. Zhao became the party's general secretary in 1987, in line to replace then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

But the student uprisings in May and June 1989, which filled central Tiananmen Square with thousands of pro-democracy activists, led to his downfall.

Zhao sympathized with the protesters and appealed to them to go home and avert bloodshed. Weeks later on June 4, 1989, soldiers fired into the throngs of protesters, killing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people. Zhao was purged and put under house arrest for nearly 16 years until his death.

Human rights groups say at least 100 people have been beaten or arrested in recent days for trying to pay their respects to Zhao. Foreign media were largely barred from a memorial site at his traditional courtyard home.

Chinese who learned of Zhao's death through a 60-word item from the Xinhua news agency sent a torrent of messages to Internet chat rooms, but censors quickly deleted the messages. China's main Internet portals also deleted any mention of Zhao.

Zhao's widow, Liang Boqi, didn't attend the funeral. Well-wishers included low-level officials, relatives, friends and a smattering of activists and writers.

One of those who attended the funeral, Shi Liang, said Communist leaders will one day have to overturn its verdict that the bloody crushing of the Tiananmen democracy protest in 1989 was necessary to prevent China from sinking into chaos.

"They still don't want to change the verdict on June 4th. They are scared," he said, referring to current or recently retired Communist leaders.

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

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