Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Former Communist Party chief said to be near death


Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), a former Communist Party chief who became a potent symbol of thwarted political reform after he was purged during the 1989 crackdown on dissent, is critically ill and is being kept alive by a respirator at his home in Beijing, people close to Zhao's family said on Monday.

Though Zhao has long been under house arrest and out of public view, his death could pose a challenge to China's leadership.

Analysts say advocates of faster political change inside and outside the Communist Party may view his passing as an opportunity to highlight demands for more open government and for a reassessment of the army's violent suppression of student-led protests in 1989.

In a nation where deaths of respected leaders and anniversaries of official atrocities have become occasions for public displays of dissent, Chinese leaders now potentially face a confluence of bad omens.

Officials have already been trying to squelch demands that they revise their own account of what happened in Beijing on June 3 and 4, 1989, as the 15th anniversary of the incident approaches. They now face the possibility that Zhao, who was removed from power after taking a soft line on the 1989 protests, could die and provide an additional impetus to those seeking redress for the crackdown, which killed hundreds around Beijing.

Zhao, 84, suffering from lung and heart problems, had a serious case of pneumonia in late February and early March and was considered close to death at that time, according to a person who maintains contact with the former leader's children. Doctors told his family that they felt his condition was potentially fatal, this person said.

Zhao was treated in a Beijing hospital and returned home when his condition stabilized, these people said. He now uses a respirator to breathe and his condition remains critical, they said.

Anointed as a successor to Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the country's paramount leader, Zhao favored a relatively bold pace of political and economic reform.

His hold on power weakened when the mainly state-run economy overheated, causing high inflation, and students organized peaceful but large-scale demonstrations in the heart of the capital.

Zhao's last public appearance came on May 19, 1989, when he made an impromptu visit to Tiananmen Square, where the protests were centered. He pleaded with students to leave the square, apologizing for having arrived "too late" and warning them that the police planned to remove them by force.

Martial law was declared the following day and Zhao was stripped of power, to be replaced a short time later by former president Jiang Zemin (江澤民), who had been mayor of Shanghai. The army moved in the night of June 3 driving tanks and armored personnel carriers and gunning down hundreds who tried to stop their advance.

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