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China Sets Burial Date for Ousted Communist Party Leader Zhao Ziyang Amid Protest Fears

  • Luis Ramirez

Chinese Communist Party leaders and the family of the late purged party chief, Zhao Ziyang, have agreed to bury him on Saturday, nearly two weeks after his death. The burial has been delayed because of Beijing's fears that his funeral might spark anti-government protests.

For many in China and overseas, the late Zhao Ziyang symbolized the drive for a reassessment of the government's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

In the two weeks since his death, police have been posted outside the Beijing home where Mr. Zhao spent his last 16 years under house arrest and where hundreds have been assembling to pay tribute. Agents have been turning many of the mourners away.

Mr. Zhao's family has been locked in a dispute with the government over the funeral arrangements. The leadership wants the ceremony on Saturday to take place out of the public eye and officials announced Thursday that foreign journalists would not be allowed to cover it. However, Mr. Zhao's family has asked for appropriate honors in keeping with his status as a former party chief.

State-controlled newspapers and broadcasts have been devoid of news on Zhao's death and on what his eulogy will say.

Cheng Li, a professor of government at Hamilton College in New York, says the Communist leaders have been trying to ensure that Mr. Zhao's funeral and eulogy do not ignite what might be an explosive new debate.

"They don't want to see it widely publicized," he said. "Certainly, they don't want to repeat what happened 16 years ago because of the emotions and other things could lead to a very sustained, prolonged event."

Analysts say the government sees a parallel with the death of another reformer, party leader Hu Yaobang, which sparked the demonstrations in May and June of 1989. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mostly young and unarmed protesters and bystanders perished when the government smashed the demonstrations.

Mr. Zhao, then the Communist party chief, went to the square two weeks before the crackdown and tearfully urged the students to abandon their protest.

Shortly after, the leadership accused him of sympathizing with the demonstrators and trying to split the party. He was ousted as party chief and placed under house arrest until his death on January 17th at the age of 85.

While many young people in China today do not remember Mr. Zhao as an advocate of reform, emotions remain high among those who do recall his role. Witnesses on Thursday said guards beat a number of people - some of them elderly - who have been trying to pay tribute to the late leader outside government offices in Beijing over the past few days.