Former communist leader Zhao Ziyang spent his 85th
birthday under house arrest Sunday as a human rights
group said pressure was mounting for his release after
15 years in captivity.
Zhao, who was deposed as China's Communist Party leader
following the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy
protests, is said to be in poor health and reportedly
was hospitalized earlier this year.
The New York-based group Human Rights in China said a
growing number of Chinese officials sympathetic to Zhao
are pressing for his release.
Groups of Zhao's relatives and former subordinates,
sometimes numbering more than 100, gathered last week
outside his heavily guarded house in Beijing, asking to
see him, the group said. It said some were allowed in,
though it didn't say whether they met Zhao.
Zhao told a relative who phoned from the United States
that little has changed and that those whom he wanted to
see weren't allowed in, Human Rights in China said. It
didn't cite any sources for its information and the
report couldn't immediately be confirmed.
Out of power and public view for half a generation, Zhao
still makes Chinese leaders uneasy as a symbol of the
reform era of the 1980s, and the government refuses to
release any information on him.
"Zhao Ziyang is one of the giants of China's reform
movement," Human Rights in China president Liu Qing said
in the statement.
"He's already lost his freedom for 15 years, and is an
elderly man in poor health," Liu said. "It's time for
the Chinese authorities to restore his freedom, and
allow him his rights to normal social activities."
Zhao was the chosen successor of then-supreme leader
Deng Xiaoping and spearheaded bold economic reforms. But
he fell from favor and was dismissed after being accused
of sympathizing with the demands of the nonviolent
protests that centered on Tiananmen Square.
Zhao was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, when he
visited the square to talk to student hunger strikers.
In tears, he apologized to the protesters, saying: "I
have come too late."
His support for political reform apparently angered
party hardliners who used the 1989 upheaval as an excuse
to get rid of him.
The protests ended in an army crackdown on June 4, 1989,
that killed hundreds and perhaps thousands.
In the 1990s, Zhao was occasionally spotted playing golf
at Beijing golf courses while surrounded by guards.
His former secretary, Bao Tong, who served a prison term
after the 1989 crackdown, wrote in The Asian Wall Street
Journal earlier this year that there was "little hope"
that Zhao's situation would improve.
Asked last year when Zhao might be released, Premier Wen
Jiabao didn't answer directly, but lauded China's
economic success â€” implicitly arguing that the 1989
crackdown was justified because of the prosperity that
Other activities planned for his birthday include a
conference at Columbia University in New York City and a
petition circulated among China scholars abroad calling
for his release, Human Rights in China said.