High-Profile Funeral For Wife of Ousted Chinese Party Chief

2017-03-17
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Portrait of Li Zhao, widow of former premier Hu Yaobang, is shown surrounded by wreaths at her funeral in Beijing.
Portrait of Li Zhao, widow of former premier Hu Yaobang, is shown surrounded by wreaths at her funeral in Beijing.
Photo sent by an RFA listener

China's leaders on Friday turned out in force to pay their last respects to Li Zhao, wife of late ousted premier Hu Yaobang, who died at the weekend at the age of 96.

But liberal academics who wanted to attend her funeral at Beijing's Babaoshan crematorium said they were denied entry permits to the funeral.

Li's son Hu Dehua told RFA shortly after his mother's death was announced that she had passed away peacefully at the family home in Beijing on March 12.

Her funeral, which took place amid tight security and a police cordon, was attended by President Xi Jinping and all members of China's all-powerful Politburo standing committee.

Admission was by permit only, 1,500 of which were issued, according to an academic who was issued a permit but unable to attend due to illness.

Even permit-holders lined up for hours for a chance to pay their respects after Li's remains were installed in a hall reserved for revolutionary figures.

Hu Dehua told RFA that the family had been hoping that Li's remains could be laid to rest alongside those of her husband.

"It would be better that way," he said in a brief interview on March 13. "But we'll have to wait for the funeral committee to look into it, and hear their opinion."

Managed event

Among those who attended were constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan, rights lawyer Shang Baojun, and former members of the editorial staff of the now-shuttered liberal political magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Footage of the scene provided by an eyewitness showed a photo of Li presiding over the hall, as black-clad bearers carried in a coffin draped in the flag of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

One tribute read: "Deep feeling, far-sighted, always in our hearts."

Near the entrance of the hall, which was packed with funeral wreaths, another tribute read: "In deep, painful mourning for Comrade Li Zhao."

The invitation-only event was in sharp contrast to the spontaneous outpouring of public mourning on Tiananmen Square following Hu's April 22 state funeral.

Popular among ordinary Chinese for rehabilitating millions purged during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement and for righting some of the wrongs of the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Hu was mourned by thousands on Tiananmen Square in May 1989.

The demonstration of public grief and outrage sparked the student-led pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, which ended with hundreds and perhaps thousands of deaths in early June that year. It also triggered the fall of Hu Yaobang's successor, Zhao Ziyang.

Simple, straightforward

But Li held the status of a revolutionary hero in her own right, shaving her head to pass as a man, and showing up in the Communist Party's stronghold of Yan'an in the 1930s to join the revolution.

After she married Hu in 1941, she continued with her own career at the head of China's state-owned textile industry, giving birth to four children, Hu Deping, Liu Hu, Hu Dehua, and Li Heng.

During her husband's tenure as premier, she was rarely seen with him on official engagements, but remained a respected figure among Beijing's leaders in spite of her husband's ouster.

She is also remembered for her role during the 1980s in overturning thousands of political verdicts and miscarriages of justice that flooded the government after the death of late supreme leader Mao Zedong and the beginning of the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping.

Her office in the capital was dubbed "The No. 2 complaints department," and Li enjoyed a reputation for simplicity and straightforwardness.

Lawyer Shang Baojun told Hong Kong media that much of the outpouring of grief was also an expression of popular feeling about Hu, who he said is unlikely to be rehabilitated by the current leadership.

Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo said he would like to have gone to the funeral, but was unable to get a permit.

"It proved too difficult to find someone who would obtain one for me," said Zha, whose activism would make it unlikely that he would be allowed in under his own name.

"There is so much weight of symbolic meaning packed into this event, for the people of China, and her intellectuals," he said.

"By mourning Li Zhao, they are [also] mourning Hu Yaobang."

'Hidden meaning'

Zha said China's leadership was making an unprecedented change in ruling Chinese Communist Party protocols by attending the funeral of Li, who was only a bureau-level cadre in the official hierarchy.

"This is another angle on [the official attitude to] Hu Yaobang," Zha said, adding that the honor of Hu's wife is in stark contrast to the official treatment of Hu's successor Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted for taking too liberal a line during the 1989 student movement.

An academic who declined to be named agreed that the funeral was exceptional.

"There is a lot of hidden meaning here, which I don't dare over-interpret," the academic said. "It has to do with elevating Hu and obliterating Zhao, and the last traces of [public grief for] the Tiananmen Square massacre. That's why Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang are treated differently."

"Think about it: all seven members of the Politburo standing committee, with wreaths from [former presidents] Jiang [Zemin] and Hu [Jintao]."

"[Former premier] Zhao Ziyang has been dead 11 years, and his family hasn't even been allowed to lay his ashes to rest, while here they are giving the wife of a former premier such a grand send-off," he said.

"That tells you everything about the intention of the leadership."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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