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Family members in the Chinese capital paid their respects to late ousted liberal premier Zhao Ziyang on Friday, the 15th anniversary of his death, amid tight security, ID checks and facial recognition surveillance cameras at the cemetery where his ashes were interred last year.

Zhao died under house arrest, where he spent the rest of his life following his ouster in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that ended the student-led pro-democracy movement that had occupied Tiananmen Square for several weeks.

Zhao’s family paid their respects at his tomb in the Tianshouyuan cemetery near Beijing amid tight security, with police preventing anyone but the family from approaching the area.

Zhao’s son Zhao Erjun said the grave now has a tree planted in front of it, making it hard to get to.

“They have changed the whole thing, planting tall trees so that you can’t see it, and leaving just a little gap that you have to squeeze through,” Zhao Erjun said. “You can’t see into the area … if you didn’t know it was there you wouldn’t be able to get in.”

“Photography is forbidden, as are flowers or any other offerings. We didn’t leave any … such is our government,” he said. “They have installed high-definition surveillance cameras across the whole cemetery that have facial recognition capabilities, so there’s nowhere to hide.”

“There’s also a security gate you have to pass through at the front gate, where you have to swipe your ID card to get in,” Zhao Erjun said.

A source in Beijing said many people had hoped to pay their respects to Zhao on Friday but were scared off by the security features.

Foreign journalists who tried to get inside were stopped by police, while the area around Zhao’s grave was patrolled by security guards with walkie talkies.

They shouldn’t be so nervous’

Zhao’s former aide Bao Tong, who remains under close surveillance and sometimes house arrest, said there was no need for such measures.

“There’s no real need for this at all,” Bao said. “They shouldn’t be so nervous: it’s normal for people to live, to die and to be buried.”

“It is normal to visit someone’s grave. [Zhao] died in 2005 and was finally buried after 15 years,” said Bao, who visited the cemetery last October.

“I went there on Oct. 22 last year, and his family also went then,” he said. “His ashes were interred on Oct. 18.”

Independent Chinese scholar Wu Wei said he had been prevented from visiting the grave at Christmas.

“I don’t think many people would be allowed in today,” Wu said. “I went there on the day Zhao Ziyang’s ashes were buried and again at Christmas, but I wasn’t allowed in. The gates were locked.”

Veteran political journalist Gao Yu said the relatives of those who died in the 1989 crackdown were under house arrest on the anniversary.

“[Tiananmen Mothers founder] Ding Zilin definitely won’t be allowed to go [to Zhao’s grave], nor to [Zhao’s former residence at] No. 6 Fuqiang Alley,” Gao said.

“I have police officers here right now, two of them sitting in a car. I have to ride with them if I want to go somewhere,” she said.

Prior to his ouster for showing sympathy with the student protesters, Zhao was a liberal-minded and well-loved leader who rose to the top of the ruling party at the 13th Party Congress in 1987.

His name rarely appears in the official record, although he has a loyal following of former officials seeking to rehabilitate him as a figurehead of the reform era that began in 1979.

In a conclusive break with the reformist thinking of the 1980s, China’s current supreme leader Xi Jinping is now serving an indefinite term as president following constitutional changes nodded through in March 2018 by China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.