Disgruntled farmers in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan gathered in a rare public celebration on Monday to mark the birthday of late ousted former premier Zhao Ziyang, with activists evoking the memory of a local leader once widely seen as the champion of ordinary Chinese.
Around 20 protesters from Jinzhou district in the provincial capital Chengdu gathered to mark the 92nd anniversary of Zhao's birth, activists said.
Sichuan-based rights activist Chen Yunfei said the event took place on a plot of land that had been taken away from local people by the government.
"We all went to that plot of land to celebrate the birthday of Zhao Ziyang," he said. "People here in Sichuan remember Zhao Ziyang."
Zhao, a former general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, fell from power at the height of the student-led pro-democracy movement in the early summer of 1989.
His name has been edited out of official records and history books, along with those people who died during the military crackdown on the protests which centered on Tiananmen Square, after he favored taking a conciliatory approach.
Champion of reform
Chen said local people also remember Zhao from his time as provincial Party secretary of Sichuan, during which he gained a reputation for understanding the concerns of China's 900 million farmers.
"They used to have a saying here in Sichuan: if you want to eat grain, find Ziyang," Chen said. "Back then, there was a lot more concern over the land and over the welfare of the people."
"[They] took away around 10,000 mu (666 hectares) of land, and it has been lying idle ever since, for more than 10 years now," he added.
Fellow Sichuan activist Huang Qi said Zhao was best known for his attempt to start political reforms from within the ruling Communist Party.
"He left the political arena because he opposed the use of military force to suppress the June 4, 1989 [movement]," Huang said.
"As the lives of the least privileged people get harder and harder, Zhao Ziyang's importance as a symbol of the struggle for civil rights becomes greater and greater," he said.
"People still remember this great man in Sichuan."
He said the marking of Zhao's birthday was an expression of widespread popular resentment over the violation of the legal rights and interests of ordinary Chinese.
"This should serve as a wake-up call to [the current leadership] ... that they must start the process of political reform," Huang said.
Meanwhile, Zhao's relatives said they had invited around 50 people to a private memorial at their home.
"Some people came to our house today," said Zhao's son-in-law Wang Zhihua. "They came separately or in small groups."
"We had a small ceremony for the family," he said.
Beijing-based legal scholar Yu Meisun was among those who visited Zhao's former home in Beijing's Fuqiang alley, where the former premier spent nearly two decades under house arrest before his death on Jan. 17, 2005.
"There were quite a lot of people there," Yu said. "At least 50, I'd say."
"Some of his friends and family were there, as well as some of the people who worked under him."
Zhang Xianling, a member of the Tiananmen Mothers group that campaigns for victims of the 1989 crackdown, said the decision by then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping to send in the People's Liberation Army had had far-reaching consequences for today's China.
"The crackdown basically opened the door to rampant corruption," Zhang said. "But what can we do? We are all old and weak now."
But she added: "The struggle [against oppression] will continue."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.