World News

China protesters mark anniversary of leader's death

BEIJING (Reuters) - Dissidents, family friends and ragged protesters on Saturday marked four years since the death of Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, nearly 20 years after the Tiananmen crackdown that brought his downfall.

A man holds a photograph of the late former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang as he stands outside his former residence on the fourth anniversary of his death in central Beijing January 17, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

Zhao was ousted as chief of the ruling Communist Party in 1989, when he split with Party elder Deng Xiaoping’s decision to crush pro-democracy protests sweeping the capital.

Until his death in 2005, Zhao was under secretive house arrest. On anniversaries of that date, his family home in central Beijing becomes a magnet for reformist well-wishers and aggrieved citizens who see him as an enlightened leader.

This Saturday was no different and marked a low-key start to a year of sensitive anniversaries for China.

In the morning, fewer people gathered compared with previous years, and there were no violent clashes with the plainclothes security officers guarding the traditional courtyard home where Zhao’s family waited to receive friends and kin.

“It’s a solemn day, but nothing special is planned,” said Zhao’s son, Zhao Erjun, who briefly stepped outside the home to speak.

Clusters of petitioners gathered at the door of the house to voice claims about confiscated land and homes, while mostly elderly well-wishers slipped inside, often presenting clutches of white flowers. White is the traditional colour of mourning.

“Zhao was a good man, a leader of the people. We need his kind now,” said Zhang Shubin, a middle-aged Beijing man clutching a photo of Zhao in his late years.

“Ordinary people still look to Zhao Ziyang as a model leader, one who put their interests first,” said Yu Meisun, a former official and now a dissident who came to visit the family.

“It’s important that we not let him be forgotten,” said Yu.

China is entering a year of politically tense anniversaries, especially the 20th year since the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. The army ended the protests by sending tanks and armed soldiers across Beijing. Many hundreds of residents died in the gunfire, witnesses have said.

Plainclothes police outside Zhao’s former home jostled away four protesters from Xinjiang, in China’s far west, who had come to publicise claims about forest land they said officials had unfairly taken a decade ago.

“We have no land and are hungry,” said one of them, Amina Amir, before an officer pushed her out of the alley.