- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

BEIJING — Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party leader deposed after tearfully sympathizing with the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, was hospitalized in a coma yesterday and may be near death, a human rights activist said.

Mr. Zhao, 85, went into shock from a lung ailment Friday night, Hong Kong-based activist Frank Lu said in a telephone interview. Mr. Lu had said earlier last week that Mr. Zhao was hospitalized for lung problems, citing Mr. Zhao’s daughter Wang Yannan.

“He’s still in a deep coma,” said Mr. Lu, who said he’d spoken to Miss Wang late last night. “His condition is unchanged.”

The South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong reported in today’s editions that Mr. Zhao was in stable condition after suffering a series of strokes.

Mr. Lu said Miss Wang wanted to thank all the people who had sent their sympathy. In an earlier statement, Mr. Lu said Mr. Zhao’s family had been distraught and “crying on the telephone, telling people who know him to wish him well.”

China last week denied a report in a Hong Kong newspaper that Mr. Zhao had died — an extremely rare disclosure by the government, which usually refuses to respond to requests for information about the ousted leader.

The government’s reticence to speak about Mr. Zhao until now is a sign of Communist Party fears that his death could spark widespread discontent and unease because of his enduring strength as a symbol of political liberalism.

Mr. Zhao has spent more than 15 years under house arrest since he was purged from the party leadership. He was accused of sympathizing with hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square who, for seven weeks, had demanded democratic reforms and the resignation of then-Prime Minister Li Peng.

Mr. Zhao was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, when he visited the square to talk to student hunger strikers, one day before martial law was declared.

“I have come too late,” he apologized, in tears. Sources said then that Mr. Zhao, who was opposed to a crackdown, had offered his resignation.

Two weeks later, China launched a bloody military crackdown. Troops armed with truncheons, tear gas and machine guns began their assault on the demonstrators, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands. Tanks rumbled into Tiananmen Square, advancing over bodies.

Andrew Nathan, a specialist on Chinese politics at Columbia University, said Chinese leaders remember how the death of Hu Yaobang in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen demonstrations, which led to Mr. Zhao’s ouster. Mr. Hu was a former Communist Party chief fired in 1987 for allowing pro-democracy student unrest. Mr. Zhao replaced him.

“The death of Zhao could well become a triggering incident or a spark that would — just like the death of Hu — create an opportunity and an emotional focus point for all kinds of dissatisfied elements to express themselves and to congeal into a larger force,” Mr. Nathan said. “He’s seen as a symbol of the demand for democracy.”

The Foreign Ministry said yesterday that it had heard reports on Mr. Zhao’s condition but had no immediate comment.

Mr. Lu appealed for Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Mr. Zhao’s former aide, to visit him in his last hours.

Mr. Wen, who had stood at Mr. Zhao’s side as he apologized to the Tiananmen protesters, didn’t answer directly in 2003 when he was asked about Mr. Zhao’s ouster.

Instead, he praised China’s economic success, implying that the crackdown was justified because of the political stability it brought.

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