After dark, remembering Zhao

On Friday evening, a mixture of former mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese began to stream into Hong Kong's Victoria Park here. About 8,000 to 10,000 people came to pay respects to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, whose death on Jan. 17 has been downplayed by Beijing. They wrote messages of praise on huge paper scrolls, and laid long-stemmed chrysanthemums in front of his portrait. Most then took part in a ceremony, sitting crosslegged on a empty asphalt soccer field, holding candles while listening to remembrances and praise for Zhao, a reform advocate who opposed the user of force in 1989 against Tiananmen Square protesters, and who spent the last 15 years under house arrest. The event was an emotional one for many Chinese, tears shown in the candlelight on the cheeks of some mourners.

A former aide to Zhao who now lives in Hong Kong said that Zhao had "a practical mind, and a soft heart." The aide worked for the former premeir in the 1950s in nearby Guandong Province, and remembered that Zhao had once asked his staff to buy chickens from the local farmers. At that time, it was strictly forbidden for Communist Party members to eat better than peasants when they were visiting the countryside. The aide, who wished to remain anonymous, said Zhao told the officials that the farmers badly needed the money from the chickens. So they bent the rules to help the farmers.

Jason Chao, who was brought to Hong Kong at age 5 by his parents, said that he has never forgotten Zhao, and that "many Chinese hold him in their heart. We feel he represented a path that we must one day take. I will go home to China when there is a change in the political system."

After a long period of reading praise and notices about Zhao from newspapers and dignitaries from around Asia and the world, one speaker read the statement made by the president of the Hong Kong parliament earlier this week, when denying Zhao a moment of silence. Zhao's "contributions were not significant," the text stated, at which the audience hissed and booed.

After observing their own period of silence, the entire crowd turned and bowed three times to a huge portrait of Zhao on the other side of the park, then streamed out into a cool Hong Kong night.

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