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Originally published Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Mourners pay respects to ousted Chinese leader

China's government yesterday continued to suppress news of the death of purged Communist party chief Zhao Ziyang, while the White House praised him as "a man of moral courage. " Zhao, who died Monday...

BEIJING — China's government yesterday continued to suppress news of the death of purged Communist party chief Zhao Ziyang, while the White House praised him as "a man of moral courage."

Zhao, who died Monday after 15 years under house arrest, was punished by Deng Xiaoping and other party elders for siding with the student protesters in the events leading up to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre.

The party has tried to erase Zhao, a symbol of the ultra-sensitive political moment, and all memory of the brutal crackdown from popular consciousness. Today, most young Chinese are unfamiliar with the events of June 3-4, in which the Chinese army crushed the demonstrations, killing hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of civilians.

Newspapers relegated Zhao's obituary to sparse notices buried on inside pages, while the English-language China Daily reported his passing without identifying Zhao's former occupation or place in history.

In the Beijing courtyard home where Zhao lived under house arrest, mourners yesterday brought flowers and messages.

Outside, plainclothes security forces asked some for identification at the entrance to the darkened alleyway, and again on Zhao's doorstep. Not everyone was allowed inside.

The family elected to forgo a state funeral and chose instead to mark his passing with a less provocative gathering of relatives, close friends and others who wished to pay their respects at the Zhao home.

Mourners signed a guest book inside the courtyard compound, entered the study and then, one by one, stepped forward and bowed before a portrait of a silver-haired Zhao, smiling, arms akimbo in a casual blue shirt.

"This was his study. He spent 16 years here. It hasn't changed," Zhao Wujun, Zhao's youngest son, told Reuters.

Elaborate floral wreaths and calligraphy couplets with messages of condolences overflowed the study where Zhao spent most of his time during his confinement.

A long strip of white cloth with a message in Chinese calligraphy declared: "Our support for your decision will never change."

Zhao was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, when, with tears in his eyes, he urged the students to leave, saying he had come too late and described the aging leadership as old and out of touch.

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China declared martial law the next day. The army swept into Beijing and crushed the protests, reportedly killing hundreds.

China has insisted the crackdown was the correct decision and reiterated that stance again yesterday.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, however, praised Zhao, in comments that will surely rankle officials in Beijing.

"He was a man of moral courage who suffered great personal sacrifices for standing by his convictions during difficult times," McClellan said.

China's leaders are worried that an outpouring of public grief over Zhao's death could spark unrest — a phenomenon common in China.

The death in 1976 of populist reformer Zhou Enlai led to an outpouring of grief and protests. The death of reformist party chief Hu Yaobang in 1989 set off the demonstrations that culminated in the army massacre.

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