January 11, 2005
Filed at 2:30 a.m. ET
BEIJING (Reuters) - Zhao Ziyang, toppled as China's Communist Party chief for opposing the army crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations, is in hospital, the government and sources close to the family said Tuesday.
Zhao, 85, has been confined to his courtyard home in Beijing for more than 15 years, but current leaders remain nervous about the residual influence of modern China's icon of reform, fearing his death could spark widespread protests.
The government dismissed Hong Kong newspaper reports that Zhao had died of respiratory and heart failure in Beijing on Saturday and that the Chinese government had withheld the news for fear of social unrest.
``Zhao Ziyang is an old man who is over 80. He fell ill, but after attentive treatment, his condition is currently stable,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters.
``Overseas media reports that Zhao Ziyang died on Jan. 8 are totally untrue.''
One source who spoke on condition of anonymity also said Zhao was in hospital. ``His condition is not good,'' he said.
Zhao had lung problems, which required him to use an oxygen mask, the source said. Zhao was in hospital for three weeks in February 2004 with pneumonia.
A second source who has had extensive meetings with Zhao on a regular basis also denied the Hong Kong newspaper reports.
``His health is not very good and he is in hospital, but he is not dead,'' the source said.
China's cabinet spokesman declined immediate comment. Zhao's family could not be reached.
In 2003, Japanese media reported Zhao had died, but the Chinese cabinet spokesman denied it weeks later. It was seen as a trial balloon floated by the authorities to see how society would react to his death.
The Chinese leadership fears Zhao's death could serve as a rallying point for reformists, workers disgruntled at soaring unemployment and farmers disillusioned with the widening gap between rich and poor.
The death in January 1976 of populist premier Zhou Enlai led to an outpouring of grief and protests on Tiananmen Square. The passing of purged reform-minded party chief Hu Yaobang in April 1989 triggered the demonstrations that year that culminated in the army massacre.
Zhao was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, when he tearfully begged student protesters to leave Tiananmen Square, where the protest was centerd. Beijing declared martial law the next day and the army crushed the movement on June 3-4.
Accused of trying to split the Communist Party, Zhao was summarily sacked as party general secretary and replaced by Jiang Zemin. Jiang himself retired in 2002.
Analysts said Zhao stood virtually no chance of staging a political comeback and lacked the power to influence the day-to-day world of Chinese politics.
But some top leaders who were involved in, or who benefited from, the crackdown are still influential and see Zhao as a security threat or as a political ghost haunting them, analysts said.