Zhao Ziyang (
The cause of death wasn't immediately announced, but the official Xinhua News Agency said Zhao suffered from multiple ailments of the respiratory and cardiovascular system and died "after failing to respond to all emergency treatment."
"He was very peaceful," said Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based human-rights activist who said he had spoken to Zhao's daughter, Wang Yannan. "He was surrounded by all his family."
Zhao had lived under house arrest for 15 years. A premature report of his death last week prompted the Chinese government to break its long silence about him and disclose that he had been hospitalized.
Zhao, a former premier and dapper, articulate protege of the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), helped forge bold economic reforms in the 1980s that brought China new prosperity and flung open its doors to the outside world.
In the end, he fell out of favor with Deng and was purged on June 24, 1989, after the military crushed the student-led, pro-democracy protests, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people.
Zhao was accused of "splitting the party" by supporting demonstrators who wanted a faster pace of democratic reform.
He was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, the day before martial law was declared in Beijing, when he made a tearful visit to Tiananmen Square to talk to student hunger strikers.
He apologized to the students, saying "I have come too late."
"The Chinese leadership owes him a lot," said Yan Jiaqi, a former Zhao aide, in comments broadcast on Hong Kong Cable TV.
"I hope to see the Beijing leadership formally express to the entire nation that Zhao Ziyang was the people's good premier," Yan said.
The government took steps to minimize any public reaction to Zhao's death.
The official announcement to the people was limited to a two-sentence Xinhua report carried by Web sites and afternoon newspapers. But Xinhua sent an advisory telling radio and TV broadcasters not to use it. CNN broadcasts to hotels and apartment complexes for foreigners were blacked out when they mentioned Zhao.
Police blocked reporters from entering the lane in central Bei-jing where Zhao had lived under guard in a walled villa. Ren Wanding, a veteran dissident, said police showed up outside his Beijing home late yesterday morning and were preventing him from leaving.
Reports said Zhao occasionally traveled to the provinces. He sometimes was seen teeing off at Beijing golf courses or paying respects at the funerals of dead comrades, but otherwise remained hidden.
Usually seen in tailored Western suits, Zhao served as premier from 1980 to 1987, then took over as general secretary of the Communist Party, the most powerful post in China, under Deng, who remained paramount leader.
"He introduced capitalism to China," said David Shambaugh, the director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University.
"Deng ... had instincts but not a lot of specific ideas about how to implement certain policies. Zhao gave specificity to those instincts," Shambaugh said.
Zhao's 1989 downfall was not his first. Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) Red Guards dragged him from his home in Guangzhou in 1967 and paraded him through the streets with a dunce cap before sending him off for years of internal exile.