BEIJING, Jan. 17 -- China's Communist leadership convened a series of emergency meetings Monday to manage the consequences of the death of a disgraced party leader and confront the legacy of an event it has tried to put behind it, the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
According to journalists and other Communist Party sources, the government was wrestling with the question of how to pay its respects to Zhao Ziyang, the party general secretary purged in 1989 for refusing to endorse the military assault on the student protesters, but to do so without triggering an emotional debate about the Tiananmen massacre.
Troops march across Beijing's Tiananmen Square after the death of Zhao Ziyang, the former party leader ousted for opposing the 1989 assault on protesters in the square.
(Takanori Sekine -- AP)
As the party tried to limit public discussion of Zhao's death, news of it was spreading, and there were quiet signs of unofficial mourning across Beijing. Vans carried flowers all day to the traditional house with a courtyard where Zhao had been held under house arrest for the past 15 years. A man lay down in Tiananmen Square and was whisked away by police.
On the Internet, especially on college bulletin boards, users posted hundreds, if not thousands, of notes of sorrow, only to watch as censors deleted most of them quickly. "Can't we grieve when someone has died?" asked one message that remained on the Web site of the party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily.
At least 20 party veterans, many of them former colleagues of Zhao's from across the country, appealed to President Hu Jintao to authorize a state funeral for the deposed party leader, according to Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based democracy activist who said he had received the information from a party elder with ministerial ranking.
Lu said some of the party veterans also urged Hu to reverse the harsh judgment on Zhao's leadership handed down by the party in 1989, a move that would mean admitting the government was wrong to use force against the peaceful demonstrations and should have negotiated a settlement with the students, as Zhao had recommended.
"Their core request is to give him a public and solemn memorial service, in which he is treated as a national leader," Lu said.
Reached by telephone, Zhao's youngest son, Zhao Sijun, said his family hoped to schedule "a simple, solemn farewell ceremony, something relatively private, with friends and relatives." He said the family had not decided whether to request a state funeral as well, but supported calls for the party to reverse its verdict on his father.
The request complicates an already delicate task for Hu, a relatively new party chief still consolidating his grip on power. Doing too much to honor Zhao, who was condemned by the party but still enjoys a degree of popular support, could stir memories of Tiananmen. But doing too little could draw attention as well and perhaps provoke a backlash.
In a sign of Hu's caution, propaganda authorities prohibited state television and radio from announcing Zhao's death on the evening news. They also ordered newspapers to use only a brief dispatch distributed by the official New China News Agency, and then only after receiving explicit permission, journalists said.
The one-sentence report referred to Zhao as "comrade" and did not mention his previous leadership posts or fall from power. The Beijing Evening News put the news on page 16, under an item about the Golden Globe Awards ceremony in the United States.
The party appeared determined to avoid what happened in 1976, when the death of a popular premier, Zhou Enlai, prompted an outpouring of grief and protests in Tiananmen Square against the excesses of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. The 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations were also touched off by the death of a popular party leader, Hu Yaobang, who had been ousted two years earlier by party hard-liners.
The same hard-liners attacked Zhao's handling of the 1989 protests. After Zhao challenged paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's order to use force to clear the square, the party concluded that he had "committed the serious mistake of supporting the turmoil and splitting the party." He spent the next 15 years under house arrest, becoming a hero to those horrified by the army's assault on Tiananmen, which killed hundreds, perhaps thousands.
In many ways, the party has recovered from the damage done to its reputation by the massacre, both by delivering record economic growth and fanning nationalist sentiment. But its anxiety about Zhao's death suggests a deep insecurity about its hold on power.
"Logically, as a former general secretary of the party and premier of the government, there should be a memorial service," said Wu Jiaxiang, a writer and former aide of Zhao's. "Zhao Ziyang made an important contribution to China. There may be some decisions that people don't agree about, but his contribution should be the main thing."
Zhao's death came days after the state funeral of Song Renqiong, a party elder who died Jan. 8. State television on Friday showed Hu and other senior leaders approaching Song's coffin separately and bowing three times.
Party officials said a similar service for Zhao was very unlikely, as was any change in the party's official assessment of Zhao or its defense of the 1989 crackdown. But doing nothing to honor Zhao, who served as premier from 1980 to 1987, then as party leader until 1989, might seem callous. That would be particularly true for Premier Wen Jiabao, who was one of Zhao's top aides and stood next to him when he last appeared in public in May 1989 and pleaded with students in the square to go home.
One party official said Hu and Wen might call on Zhao's family privately, thus recognizing his pioneering role in promoting market changes that transformed China's economy.
Vice President Zeng Qinghong is reported to have already visited the family, about an hour before Zhao's death at 7:01 a.m. Monday. Zhao, 85, had suffered multiple strokes and had been in a coma since Friday night.