Wang Bei tried to attend former Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang's funeral on Saturday. He even got an invitation from the Zhao family. But professor Wang, not a dissident and not even very well known, was stopped at his door by Chinese security, taken to a distant suburb - and only let go hours after the funeral.
China continues to treat former premier Zhao Ziyang, who sided with pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square, as irrelevant to modern China. For the first time ever, no eulogy was given at the funeral of a former No. 1 leader. Yet the massive size of the largely invisible security campaign to minimize Zhao's unpublicized funeral, involving thousands of police and security, and a similar phalanx of Web and news censors, and informers - suggests that the Communist Party of China remains fearful of the popular memory of the man.
After two weeks of a virtual blackout on Zhao's death and wrangling between family members and officials over his legacy, Zhao's service took place on a unusually clear and cold morning at Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in west Beijing. Some 1,500 Chinese braved the weather and police to walk around a bier and bow three times in honor of Zhao. No foreign reporters were allowed. Many attendees said on the way out that they had come secretly to avoid retribution by employers.
The service coincided with a celebrated and nationally televised departure of the first Chinese airliner to fly directly to Taiwan. Front pages of most Beijing newspapers heralded the flights. Papers ran on inside pages the state news agency's brief report on Zhao's cremation.
Zhao was arrested just prior to the infamous June 4, 1989, massacre of students and workers here. An innovativereformer, Zhao had been a thorn in the side of Chinese leaders ever since, living under strict house arrest and allowed no interviews since '89.
Now, the message offered by public intellectuals, dissidents, and from many ordinary Chinese is that the handling of Zhao's death and his service on Saturday indicates the kind of society China has become in the past five years.
"The handling of Zhao's funeral speaks loudly about China. In our post-totalitarian system, you are allowed to choose from many brands of washing machines and refrigerators. It is a consumer paradise. But there are fewer and fewer choices about what can be said in public," says one well-known intellectual who was warned by a supervisor not to attend Zhao's funeral. The individual decided to go anyway. But out on the street at 7:30 a.m., he was confronted by his immediate boss and politely told to go home and stay home.
"Many people hoped for some reconciliation by our leaders after Zhao died, but this did not happen," says the high-profile intellectual.
In a way, argue some of these thinkers, China has become a successful version of a future that Zhao opposed - since he felt civic and political reforms could take place in tandem with economic reforms.
As the drama of Zhao's memory and passing unfolded for two weeks of indecision and tensions, many Chinese pointed to the dynamics around the little courtyard home of Zhao itself as representing China's contradictions.
The home sits in an old hutong neighborhood of gray one-story homes of the type now being rapidly torn down. It abuts Wangfujing, one of Beijing's poshest commercial streets, where high-heeled shoes, expensive watches, and all manner of luxury goods are available.
Despite the news blackout and a thrall of police and plain clothes security standing at Zhao's street, a steady stream of mourners, wearing or carrying white flowers, could be seen walking past huge billboards and plate glass windows toward the Zhao hutong. They were interspersed with thousands of shoppers flooding the street in preparation for the Chinese New Year's, who had no idea the former leader had died, or that he had lived a block away. Mourners braved the police, had their photos taken, and registered in a log book - prior to entering the house. One young man stayed all day, writing down the title of every book in Zhao's study - and then published his catalogue on the Internet.
Only mourners with invitations from the family were allowed inside. These were obtained by a phone call or personal relations. China's No. 4 ranking leader, Jia Qinglin, attended on behalf of the state. No mention of Zhao's title as premier or general secretary of the party - the highest rank in China - prefaced his name. Officially, he was known as "comrade" Zhao, the title of an ordinary party member.
While no words were allowed, angering many mourners, the family did issue a tastefully designed card with a large photo of Zhao on the cover, signed, "thanks to everyone." In the photo Zhao appears tanned and hale - quite unlike recent news shots of him where he looked like a party functionary wearing thick turtle-shell spectacles, or as a tired figure in Tiananmen Square, with a megaphone in his hand. Zhao was 85.
"It was very solemn, very sad, we are having trouble with our emotions right now," says a mourner who found out about the death on an American Chinese website, called to reserve an invitation, and drove more than 120 miles to come. "I will never forget Zhao. He was for the people, and he spoke the truth to us, and was the only one who did."
A number of ordinary farmers, peasants, and working people were turned away from the cemetery with tears. Some mourners carried folded up poems about respect for elders and for honorable leaders.
After the service, the state-run Xinhua news agency issued the first mention of Zhao in 15 years, since June of 1989 when he was purged. Zhao did make contributions and held several leading positions after Mao died, the statement said, but "in the political turbulence which took place in the early summer of 1989, Comrade Zhao made serious mistakes."
Several attendees said they would not attempt to meet together for lunch or discussion afterward as it seemed "too dangerous." Several sources said their cellphones were tapped and that they had stopped speaking to each other of Zhao on the phone.
The zero-degree temperatures and high winds in Beijing was noted by one mourner, who at first was afraid to speak to reporters. Later in the subway, she said, "Maybe the gods made it so cold today because of the passing of good people," then quickly slipped away.