TOPICS : Mourning Zhao proves to be a struggle

Antoaneta Bezlova:

Although carefully censored, the death of ousted Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang is stirring political grievances in China and might still become a rallying point for protests and demonstrations. Political dissidents, pro-democracy intellectuals and even some party elders here have rallied to exert pressure on the government to give due recognition to Zhao in the same manner in which the state bestowed official honours on the late paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

A funeral committee set up by Zhao’s political supporters has called for a state funeral, which would include a mass memorial service at Tiananmen Square on Jan. 30 with flags flown at half must. Allowing the public to pay respects to Zhao at the same square where 15 years ago he tried to mediate a peaceful end to pro-democracy protests that were eventually crushed with brutal force would be tantamount to a political rebuke of the current leadership.

Zhao had refused to accept the Communist Party’s verdict that Tiananmen’s quest for democracy was a “counter-revolutionary rebellion’’. Beijing insists the crackdown on pro- democracy students was justified because it prevented China from slipping into chaos and paved the way for the economic boom.

Only Chairman Mao Zedong who died shortly before the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 was accorded a memorial service in Tiananmen Square. One million people attended the service for the leader the nation reveres as the founding father of Communist China. Chinese leaders, however, are reluctant to accord similar honours to a man the party regarded as a pariah. In terms of public existence, Zhao has been dead since 1989 when he was purged and placed under house arrest. He was last seen in public on May 18, 1989 when he visited the students on hunger strike and begged them to leave the square. The next day, martial law was declared and on the night of June 3 and early hours of June 4 army tanks moved in, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.

The formation of an independent funeral committee comes amid a deadlock between Zhao’s family and government officials over funeral plans for the ousted leader, who died in a Beijing hospital on Jan. 17 at the age of 85. According to Chinese funeral tradition, the deceased must be buried at the latest on the seventh day after their death. However, it has been more than a week after Zhao’s demise and his family and the government have yet to reach an agreement on the appropriate final rites.

In the 1980s, the party abolished grandiose memorial services fearing they could give cult-like status to the dead. But, when paramount leader Xiaoping died in 1997, Beijing encouraged people from government institutions, work units and factories to quit work and line the streets to bid farewell to the paramount leader. Zhao’s death, by contrast, has been kept under wraps. State radio and television have ignored it and major newspapers have opted for a terse announcement on the inside pages.

But Zhao’s supporters say they have applied to hold a public memorial service in Tiananmen for him on Sunday. The declaration signed by supporters both in Beijing and the provinces described Zhao as a ‘’pioneer of China’s political and economic reforms’’. —IPS