01/17/2005, 00.00
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Reformist Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang dies

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Zhao Ziyang, the reformist Communist Party leader purged for opposing the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement, died Monday at the age of 85.

Mr Zhao had been seriously ill in a Beijing hospital with a lung problem and he fell into a coma on Friday after suffering a series of strokes. His death was confirmed in a short dispatch by China's official Xinhua news agency.

"Comrade Zhao Ziyang died of illness in a Beijing hospital Monday," said Xinhua.

Mr Zhao's daughter Wang Yannan sent a short text-message to friends by mobile phone. "He left peacefully this morning, he is free at last," said the message.

"My heart-felt gratitude for everyone's concern and good wishes." In a previous message she also thanked the overseas community for their prayers and expressions of support for Mr Zhao.

Mr Zhao was unceremoniously stripped of his post of Communist Party secretary general after he opposed using military force to end the six-week-long student-led protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

He served as the head of the Communist Party and China's prime minister for much of the 1980s. After his removal from power, Mr Zhao lived under house arrest in a tightly-guarded compound in central Beijing.

Although the ruling Communist Party discredited his political reform plans, his economic reforms in the 1980s set the stage for the opening up of China's economy and 25 years of robust economic growth.

Analysts have said the government would be concerned the death of Mr Zhao could become a rallying point for disillusionment in Chinese society, especially the growing gap between rich and poor.

The state-controlled media on Sunday broke a long standing news blackout on Mr Zhao, saying in an English-language report that his condition had stabilised.

Mr Zhao was last seen in public on May 19, 1989 with current Premier Wen Jiabao when he visited Tiananmen Square and tried to urge the students to leave the square. The next day the government imposed martial law, leading to the assault by troops in the square on the night of June 3.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed citizens and protesters were gunned down in the streets of Beijing during the assault. The government continues to maintain the crackdown was necessary to safeguard political stability for ongoing economic reforms.

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