Human dignity over politics

Eleven days after his death, Beijing finally approves a low-key memorial service for former Premier Zhao Ziyang.


Jonathan Watts
January 28, 2005 7:49PM (UTC)

Days of wrangling over the politically sensitive memorial service for former Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, who died 11 days ago, ended Thursday when the government approved a low-key ceremony. It will be held Saturday morning at the Babaoshan cemetery for revolutionary heroes in Beijing.

Reflecting Communists' nervousness about commemorating a leader purged for tearfully sympathizing with Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, there was no announcement in the Chinese media, and dozens of prominent dissidents were kept under house arrest to prevent from them mourning in large numbers.

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The Zhao family has endured an awkward standoff with the government since the 85-year-old died on Jan. 17. Initial plans for a ceremony on Jan. 23 were postponed because both sides could not agree on the numbers allowed to attend or the wording of an official eulogy.

The Communist Party accused Zhao of making "grave mistakes" for his opposition to the 1989 crackdown. But the elderly politician refused to accept this verdict even though he was under house arrest for the past 15 years.

The Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that the impasse had been broken on Tuesday after the intervention of President Hu Jintao, who insisted that human dignity take precedence over politics. The compromise, reportedly agreed to the next day, allows the family to invite members of the public, while government representatives will withhold an official pronouncement on Zhao's record until after the memorial. What will happen to his ashes has yet to be decided.

"We just want to let Father rest in peace as soon as possible," Zhao's son-in-law, Wang Zhihua, told Reuters.

The "body farewell ceremony" will be far less prestigious than a state funeral. Attention will focus on which leaders attend and how many people pay their respects.

Cadres are still divided about the treatment of Zhao and the slaughter of protesters in 1989. Although the official line is that the use of tanks was necessary to quell a destabilizing revolt, there have been repeated calls for a reappraisal.

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The decision whether to attend the ceremony will place some officials in a difficult position, including Premier Wen Jiabao, who was among a small group of sympathizers who joined Zhao at Tiananmen Square to appeal to students to leave. The 1989 protests were sparked by the death of purged popular reformer Hu Yaobang.

Thousands are said to have paid their respects at Zhao's house over the past 10 days, but it is unclear how many can attend the ceremony. Many supporters have not been allowed to leave their homes. Security is tight around Tiananmen Square and students have been warned off.

Agence France-Presse reported Thursday that police had used violence outside government offices in the Yongdingmen district of Beijing to disperse a gathering of 60 petitioners wearing the white paper flowers of mourning.

Censorship, detentions, occasional violence by the authorities and growing affluence have led to political apathy in China. Few under the age of 30 are aware of what Zhao did, and many are more interested in making money than in old political passions. The controversy surrounding the former premier is unlikely to end after the service, however. "For whatever reason, he tried to prevent the crackdown and the bloodshed," said Wenran Jiang, one of the mourners invited to the ceremony. "He deserves credit for that."

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Jonathan Watts

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