HONG KONG—As China's top leadership prepares to commemorate late leader Hu Yaobang for the first time since his fall from power, others political elites are mourning an influential reformer who brought the southern province of Guangdong to the forefront of change in China.
Ren Zhongyi, who died Tuesday at the age of 92, was known for his tireless pursuit of political reform and press freedom during his long political career, especially during his tenure as Party Secretary for Guangdong province (1980-85).
Ren Zhongyi really spent his entire life in pursuit of freedom and democracy for the Chinese people,
His time in office saw the province spearhead economic reforms and set an example to the whole country with its freewheeling entrepreneurial spirit.
Ren held liberal political views that were not always popular among China's authoritarian leadership, although many in the Party were deeply influenced by his ideas, including a former political secretary to Mao Zedong, Li Rui.
"Ren Zhongyi really spent his entire life in pursuit of freedom and democracy for the Chinese people," Li told RFA's Mandarin service. "Even after his retirement, and amid considerable ill-health, he never stopped writing for the newspapers and other publications."
Those who knew him said Ren was tireless in his advocacy of reform, remaining influential until long after his retirement from official posts.
One of his main themes was the need to set limits on the Party's political power, which he saw as dangerous if unchecked.
"He always believed that political reform and economic reform should progress at the same pace," Li said. "Otherwise, it would be very difficult for the country to progress properly, even at a purely economic level."
"He put out a lot of opinions; on the June 4 military crackdown, on the question of Zhao Ziyang, and every time he took a moral stance. He was very courageous and didn't work for his own interests. A truly great man who had a major influence on southern China," he told reporter Ke Hua.
Former Chinese propaganda minister Zhu Houze told RFA's Cantonese service that Ren ran into many obstacles during his time in Guangdong, with vested interests everywhere obstructing his vision.
"But he managed to withstand these pressure and push ahead with reforms and opening up in Guangdong. His was a glorious contribution to modern China," Zhu said.
Zhu said Ren understood fully that the Party would become corrupt with no checks and balances on its power.
He always believed that political reform and economic reform should progress at the same pace,
"One of his ideas was that we are not acting for the people, but that our actions should stem directly from the people. The second of his principles was that political power should be limited," he told RFA reporter Ng Ka-man.
Ren was also known as a strong advocate of press freedom, saying in a media interview earlier this year that the 1980s was a time of much freer debate than China now, and that a government which wouldn't hear any critical voices was in danger.
He is also credited with supported several cutting-edge publications in their coverage of corruption, public health scandals and other hard-hitting news stories.
"[One of his contributions] was to support the reform of the media in Guangdong, and to support press freedom there," said Shenzhen-based independent commentator Zhu Jianguo.
"The Southern Weekend magazine, for example, would never had had such an obvious impact without the support of Ren Zhongyi. The decline of Southern Weekend coincided with the waning of Ren's political influence," he said.
"He never got along very well with the higher ups. He was one of that breed of true reformers within the Party," Zhu added.
Last year, when a local court cut the sentences of two editors of another cutting-edge Guangdong newspaper, the Southern Metropolis News , who had angered the authorities with their hard-hitting investigative journalism, local media said Ren had interceded with current Party leaders on their behalf.
The Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court cut the sentence of Yu Huafeng, former general manager of the paper, from 12 years to eight on appeal. Former editor-in-chief Li Minying had his sentence cut from 11 years to five. Both were accused of corruption.
Former editor Cheng Yizhong was detained for several months before being released without charge, but lost his job and has since declined to give interviews.
Yu's wife Xiang Li remembered Ren kindly from the incident.
"He was a wonderful old man, but he was still very concerned about what was going on with us, and kept telling us to take care of our health," she said.
Ren's swansong was an article in the Guangdong magazine, Tongzhou Gongjin , criticizing late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping for failing to use his power to instigate political reforms. It resulted in the sacking of the magazine's editor, Xiao Weibin, on Sept. 2, 2004.
China's leaders are planning a memorial event in the Great Hall of the People to mark the 90th anniversary of Hu Yaobang1s birth on Nov. 20.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ke Hua, and in Cantonese by Ng Ka-man. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.