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Former Chinese Communist Party Chief Zhao Ziyang Dies

China's former Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang, died Monday at the age of 85 at a Beijing hospital after spending his last 15 years under house arrest.

Zhao Ziyang is remembered as one of the key architects of communist China's economic reforms and opening up to the outside world. His drive for political change earned him a following among reformers and won him the ire of communist hardliners during his tenure as party secretary in the late 1980s.

Joseph Cheng is a politics professor at the City University of Hong Kong. "He was made a symbol in support of China's political reforms in the Tiananmen Square incident because he openly declared support for the protesting students," he said.

Zhao Ziyang spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest for his role in the 1989 student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mostly young demonstrators were killed at the hands of the Army. Leaders sacked Mr. Zhao, accusing him of trying to split the party, and he never appeared in public again.

Official news of Mr. Zhao's death was limited to a short dispatch in which the state run news agency said he had long suffered from heart and lung diseases. Security at Tiananmen Square has been heightened in recent days amid speculation that new demonstrations might erupt.

However, few in the Chinese capital see the prospect as likely.

The government allows no public discussion or commemoration of the crackdown. Every year around the anniversary of the massacre on June 4, police routinely arrest those who push for the government to change its accounting of the incident.

Advocates have for years been calling on Beijing to reverse its verdict on the 1989 demonstrations, which officials labeled a counterrevolutionary rebellion. Hours after Mr. Zhao's death was announced, the calls re-emerged.

Ren Wanding is a veteran pro-democracy activist who recalls Zhao Ziyang's tearful plea in May 1989 - when the former party leader went to Tiananmen Square and urged students to go home in order to avoid getting crushed by Army troops.

Upon hearing of Mr. Zhao's death on Monday, Mr. Ren called the former party leader a flag-bearer of democracy and expressed hope that the government might one day reassess the 1989 incident. However, he says he does not expect that anytime soon.

"The Communist Party has never believed that the use of the military in 1989 against the democracy movement was a mistake. The whole interest of the Communist Party is to protect their power. They are against any form of democratic movement," he said.

Observers here say the government would likely treat his death in a low-key, non-political manner so as to not create any new controversy. They say leaders fear his death might be used as a rallying point by impoverished farmers, the unemployed, and others seeking further reforms in China.