Mon, Jan 24, 2005 - Page 5 News List

From half a world away, a Chinese leader is honored


Thousands of protestors take to the streets to demand more democracy and pay their respects to deposed Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang in Hong Kong yesterday. Chanting slogans and carrying banners the marchers walked from the downtown business district to government offices.


It was a memorial service that organizers hoped would be the perfect tribute to Zhao Ziyang, the former leader of China's Communist Party who died last week in Beijing.

In the corridor outside were grainy photos of Zhao with the likes of Deng Xiaoping and Henry Kissinger. There, in the overflow audience of more than 200 mourners, sat Li Lu and Liu Gang, two of the top student leaders during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.

And there, too, were some of Zhao's former advisers, delivering testimonials in Mandarin about Zhao's commitment to economic and political reform.

It was the perfect tribute, perhaps, but for the location: the basement of a hotel in Flushing, Queens, rather than a huge square or grand hall in Beijing.

Zhao died last Monday at the age of 85, 15 years after he was purged and placed under house arrest on the orders of Deng for publicly supporting pro-democracy student protesters in Tiananmen Square.

He had been prime minister, general secretary of the Communist Party and a principal architect of the economic changes that transformed China in the 1980s.

Yet his death was barely mentioned by the official press.

Only in recent days has the Chinese government decided to conduct a low-profile funeral service, not the pomp of a full state memorial service usually expected to honor top officials.

Some Chinese are using memorial services outside the country as a substitute for expressing both their admiration for Zhao and their frustration with how political reform has lagged far behind economic reform.

And in the Western hemisphere, no memorial has had as many faces from China's turbulent political past, arguably, as the one that was conducted Friday at the Sheraton La Guardia East hotel in Flushing.

It was, on one hand, a reunion of sorts for some of China's leading intellectuals and dissidents who now live in the US.

But since many young Chinese have scant memories of Tiananmen and Zhao, the reunion may have also been a little bittersweet; the last chance for these dissidents to come together in so public, so political and so visceral a way.

"He's probably the only person you can call a national hero since 1949," said Li, a student leader who escaped China after the troops crushed the protesters, and now is a venture capitalist in Manhattan.

"We have to immortalize him if the nation has any hope of any revitalization," Li said.

Those dissidents who have made their way to America are now doing a variety of things, from pursuing doctorates in political science (like Wang Juntao, a former adviser to Zhao who is now at Columbia) to running businesses (like Gao Han, a writer who now owns an ice cream store in Bayside, Queens).

But many still communicate and follow the latest pro-democracy murmurings from China.

In fact, many "are still obsessed with political reform and want to keep the memory alive," said Merle Goldman, a research associate at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, and author of the coming book, From Comrade to Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China.

So when Zhao died, the response among Chinese living abroad was immediate and dramatic.

Gao, for one, quickly set up a Web site in honor of Zhao ( that has so far drawn more than 23,000 visitors who have contributed 4,000 testimonials.

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