Tiananmen revelations face China censors

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - Memoirs of purged Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang are sure to encounter silence and censorship from the Communist Party, afraid of rekindling memories of the bloodshed around Tiananmen Square that accompanied his 1989 downfall.

Zhao, who died in 2005 after years under house arrest, secretly recorded memories of his time at the apex of Party power and ousting by Party hardliners in 1989. Their publication would whip up a frenzy of public interest in many countries.

But not in China, where the reformist Zhao is taboo.

The Chinese-language version of his memoirs will be published soon in Hong Kong, though not on the mainland.

"People may be interested, but it would be impossible for them to be published (domestically)," said Yang Jisheng, deputy president of a Beijing history magazine that got into hot water last year for obliquely commemorating Zhao.

Even as it has plunged into capitalism, China's Communist Party leadership maintains strict, though increasingly erratic, control of what its citizens can read in print and online.

That censorship will be especially stringent before the sensitive 20th anniversary of June 4, when troops crushed pro-democracy protests centred on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, a step Zhao opposed as he was pushed from power and which he laments in his memoirs, to appear soon in English and Chinese.

"On the night of June 3rd, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire," says Zhao. "A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted."

There was no mention of Zhao's memoirs in the Chinese press on Friday, and government officials have not commented -- no surprise in this country where even his death was only sparingly mentioned by official media.

"The Communist Party strictly controls publishing, and is especially sensitive about its own past, because its political standing is tied to the past," said Zheng Heng, an amateur historian who last year privately published a collection of biographies of Party leaders that included Zhao.

"My own impression of Zhao Ziyang is quite positive, but he lost power because of internal struggles, and that can't be discussed or written."

For many ordinary Chinese, especially young people, even events of 20 years ago are a blur as the country hurtles forward into prosperity, shielded from its past by censors.

Zhao and his memoirs will mean little to ordinary people, said Bo Zhiyue, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.

"I don't think they can have any dramatic influence on what is going on in China," Bo said by telephone. "This is more of a historical issue."

But precisely because the Party is so vigilant about how its troubled past is remembered, Zhao's memories could be like a depth charge officials will have a hard time totally ignoring, said Du Guang, a veteran Communist Party scholar who has pressed for political liberalisation since the 1980s.

"For the people involved and concerned about these things, the events of 20 years ago are still a major issue," said Du.

"Zhao Ziyang promoted plans for political reform, but unfortunately his plans were buried by June 4... Still, those calls for political reform have never stopped, and so there'd be widespread interest in Zhao's memoirs."

Du said that despite censors, Zhao's memoirs are also sure to slip into the mainland and then be copied.

"That's bad for royalties, but this time piracy might be a good thing," he said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jerry Norton)

Article Published: 15/05/2009