BEIJING, Jan. 17 -- Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist leader who pioneered market reforms that transformed China's economy and was ousted as party general secretary for opposing the 1989 military assault on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, died Monday morning at a hospital in Beijing. He was 85.
The official New China News Agency said Zhao, who had lived under house arrest for the past 15 years, "had long suffered from multiple diseases affecting his respiratory and cardiovascular systems." Family friends said he was hospitalized in early December for pneumonia and fell into a coma Friday night after suffering a series of strokes.
Zhao was ousted for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen Square assault.
"He is free at last," said his daughter, Wang Yannan, in a statement sent to friends at 7:37 a.m.
Zhao was a symbol of what might have been in China if the Communist leadership had negotiated a settlement instead of firing on the student protesters demanding political reform in 1989. His successors were haunted by him, worried even in the last days of his life that those frustrated by the party's authoritarian rule might rally around the former Communist Party chief.
State media announced his death with a one-sentence report that made no mention of his leadership posts or the Tiananmen crackdown. Police tightened security around the square and confined several dissidents to their homes, apparently as a precaution aimed at preventing mass protests similar to those triggered in 1976 and 1989 by the deaths of other popular party leaders.
No public displays of mourning were immediately visible. Zhao's name and image have been banned from state media since his purge from the leadership, and many students in universities today -- a generation that came of age in an era of sustained economic growth and political stability -- know little about him.
In an essay last year, Bao Tong, a senior aide of Zhao's who is under house arrest, said the Chinese leadership "made a decision to erase history, to erase the name of Zhao Ziyang, because when absolute power went insane, it was Zhao who rang the bell of reason and compassion."
For nearly a decade, Zhao was one China's most powerful men, a protégé of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who spearheaded market reforms, promoted private enterprise, dismantled the agricultural communes and opened China's coast to foreign investment, laying the foundation for the boom that the country enjoys today.
Zhao also championed a program of political reform involving separation of power between the party and the government, an expansion of press freedoms and the role of representative assemblies, and strengthening the rule of law. He endorsed what his aides called "neo-authoritarianism," arguing that strong central leadership was needed to build a market economy and slowly guide China into a democratic transition.
As premier from 1980 to 1987, and the party's general secretary from 1987 to 1989, Zhao was in line to succeed Deng when the Tiananmen protests erupted. In the power struggle that followed, party rivals accused him of being too soft on the protesters. Deng eventually sided with the hardliners and ordered the military to clear the square. Zhao refused to go along.
Though never convicted of any crime, he was stripped of all his posts and confined to his traditional courtyard home. He remained there until his death, except for occasional outings under heavy security approved by his successor, Jiang Zemin.
He last appeared in public on May 19, 1989, soon after failing to persuade Deng to refrain from ordering the Tiananmen crackdown. In a surprise, pre-dawn visit to the square, he pleaded with students to go home.
"We have come too late," he said, tearing up in footage broadcast on television. "I am sorry, fellow students. No matter how you have criticized us, I think you have the right to do so. We do not come here to ask you to excuse us."
On the night of June 3, troops opened fire in central Beijing, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands. Zhao's dismissal from office was announced three weeks days later.