HONG KONG—Petitioners from all over China flocked to a traditional Beijing house in a quiet alleyway in the capital at the weekend in hope of paying respects at the home of reformer Zhao Ziyang on the fifth anniversary of the ousted premier's death.
"We haven't had time to count up the names in the guest book yet, but we guess that around 200 people came," Zhao's daughter Wang Yannan said.
"They were coming here as an act of remembrance."
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.
While Zhao's death went unnoticed by many in China, a number of ordinary people with grievances against the government converged on the ancestral hall of the house in Fuqiang Alley.
Zhao spent nearly two decades under house arrest there before his death on Jan. 17, 2005.
Petitioners were hoping to pay their respects before Zhao's funeral portrait, sign a condolence book, and leave simple floral tributes, but many were turned back by police.
Mourners turned away
"I feel regret that some people weren't able to come," Wang said.
"I think they should have been allowed to come. This makes no sense."
Beijing-based petitioner Li Guifen was one of the mourners who made it past a cordon of plainclothes police who were guarding the entrance to Zhao's alleyway.
"There were [uniformed] police in several vehicles," Li said. "But there were a large number of plainclothes officers as well."
"There were also old ladies wearing red armbands asking to check the bags of people who were carrying stuff, and then the police would come over."
"[After we got out], we argued with them for a while, and then they shoved us into their bus."
While his name is seldom spoken in political circles and has been erased from the history books, Zhao's death in 2005 became a focal point for those who are increasingly disgruntled with the current government.
Petitioner Liu Chunxia said she had come to pay her respects because Zhao "spoke up for the people, and then was put under house arrest for 16 years."
"His is the greatest miscarriage of justice in our country. There will only be any hope for all of us with smaller cases if the verdict against [Zhao] is overturned."
Memoir of bloodshed
His posthumous memoir, titled in English Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang, went on sale last year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown—which Zhao opposed at the cost of his political career and personal freedom.
Li said the mourners were shown through the porch of the courtyard house into a small inner courtyard, and into Zhao's study, a small room where he had spent much of his time in the long years of his house arrest.
She said many others failed to get through, however, and were turned away by police.
A prominent member of a group of relatives of those who died in the 1989 military crackdown on student-led demonstrations in Beijing, the Tiananmen Mothers, said she was visited by state security police at the weekend.
She said she was also warned not to try to visit Zhao's house on the fifth anniversary of his death.
"They didn't even dare to speak Zhao Ziyang's name," said Ding Zilin, a retired professor whose 17-year-old son died in the crackdown.
"They just mentioned a 'fifth anniversary,' and said they hoped I wouldn't go," said Ding, who is frequently put under surveillance around politically sensitive dates and anniversaries.
"They can use police force to prevent us from paying our respects, or from visiting the graves of our loved ones," she said. "But they can't silence our feelings."
Other Beijing-based dissidents, including Zhao's former aide, Bao Tong; Qi Zhiyong, who was paralysed in the crackdown; and online writer "Stainless Steel Mouse," all said they had been warned against visiting Zhao's house on the anniversary of his death.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao and in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.