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Zhao Ziyang, Key Architect of Chinese Open-Door Policy, Dies

China's former Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang, purged after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, is being remembered as a key architect of China's economic reforms. Mr. Zhao died in Beijing Monday at the age of 85 following 15 years of house arrest.

Zhao Ziyang last appeared in public on May 19, 1989. It was the day he made a surprise visit to student demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, asking them - in tears - to abandon their protest and go home in order to avoid being crushed by the columns of Army tanks that would force their way into the square two weeks later on June 4.

He is remembered for championing economic reforms that have taken China from an isolated and impoverished nation to one of the world's fastest growing economies.

The son of a wealthy landowner, Zhao Ziyang, was born in central Henan Province in 1919 and joined the Communist Party in 1938. He was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long movement launched by Mao Zedong, which sought to destroy all remaining elements of capitalism in Chinese society. Mr. Zhao was rehabilitated in 1973 shortly before Mao Zedong's death. He rose through the party ranks and - as premier starting in 1980 - became one of the key architects of China's economic reform movement.

Joseph Cheng, a politics professor at the City University of Hong Kong, says Mr. Zhao was a leading proponent of China's so-called open door policy.

"He basically devised China's strategy of exploiting foreign capital, utilizing China's cheap land supply and labor resources to achieve capital accumulation - thus laying the foundation for China's modernization process," he said.

Mr. Zhao was instrumental in creating Special Economic Zones and Open Coastal Cities - pilot projects in the 1980s that started the rapid and extensive industrialization of China's east coast.

Zhao Ziyang's popularity was such that he was widely considered the likely successor to then-leader Deng Xiaoping.

It was Mr. Zhao's sympathy for the Tiananmen Square demonstrators and his opposition to the government's plans to crush the pro-democracy activists that prompted Communist Party hardliners to purge him in June of 1989. The party leadership accused him of supporting what it termed a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" and of trying to split the party.

He never again made a public appearance and was confined to a courtyard house not far from Tiananmen Square. From there, Mr. Zhao ventured outside only rarely and under heavy escort to play golf at nearby courses.

He - on at least two occasions - wrote letters to the government demanding a reassessment of the Tiananmen incident. One of those letters appeared on the eve of the Communist Party's 15th National Congress. The other came during a 1998 visit to China by then U.S. President Bill Clinton. Neither was ever published in China.

Professor Joseph Cheng says the government considered Zhao Ziyang a threat throughout the rest of his life.

"He was largely seen as a kind of rallying cause for the demand of the reversal of the verdict on Tiananmen Square, which was seen as a symbolic act in [preparing] China for further political reforms," he said.

Even in death, the government continues to view Mr. Zhao as a menace, fearing that his name might ignite discontent among impoverished farmers, intellectuals, the unemployed and others who want to see sweeping political reforms.

Veteran pro-democracy advocate Ren Wanding, who spent 11 years in prison for his criticism of the Communist Party, spoke to VOA upon hearing of Zhao Ziyang's death. He described the late party chief as an enlightened Communist Party member whose vision might have made a difference for China.

"Zhao Ziyang's death gives rise to deep feelings from the democratic faction and the common people," he said. "Although Zhao Ziyang was not a democrat, in 1989 he advocated using a moderate solution, one of dialogue and negotiation, to resolve the student movement."

Police officers were posted outside Mr. Ren's home Monday. Agents were also seen guarding the house where the late Communist Party leader was once confined, preventing anyone from entering the alley leading to the property.

Security at Tiananmen Square was visibly tightened in the days leading to Zhao Ziyang's death, as reports emerged that he had slipped into a coma.

Official announcement of his passing Monday came via a short dispatch by the state news agency, which briefly said that he had died at a Beijing hospital after suffering longtime lung and heart ailments.

As of late Monday, there were no details of burial arrangements, nor was it clear whether the government would grant him a state funeral in accordance with his status as a former party chief.