Internet users have flocked to pay tribute to Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party chief purged in the wake of the June 4 crackdown 22 years ago, at online memorials in the lead-up to next Thursday's Ching Ming tomb-sweeping festival.
Hundreds of comments were posted yesterday at an online memorial hall on Jj3344.com, compared with just seven last year. It was much the same story on other memorial websites including Lifeall.com, fenfenyu.com and zg05.com.
Apparent official tolerance of a surge in memorial comments has lent weight to speculation that curbs on public discussion of some sensitive figures and events might have been lifted, web users and scholars said, with some linking the development to reports of internal power struggles and a push for political reform. Other observers said it was routine ahead of the festival.
Most comments mourned the death of Zhao, with some calling for political reform and a re-evaluation of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
'The truth will come out one day because history is actually written by the people,' one internet user wrote.
Another said: 'I will tell the next generation you are a true hero and a reformer.'
A spokeswoman for fenfenyu.com said that Zhao's online memorial hall, established by an internet user in December 2010, had seen more traffic this year.
A staff member at Jj3344.com, which is based in Shenyang, Liaoning's provincial capital, said it had kept in contact with local police.
'The memorial hall has never been blocked, as we censor each post and remove those with illegal contents,' he said.
Wu Zuolai, a Beijing-based scholar and columnist on political and cultural issues, said recent signals of more openness in the discussion of sensitive political issues had made internet users bolder when discussing Zhao. 'It would suggest progress to re-evaluate Zhao as a great historic figure,' he said. 'Compromise and dialogue are needed in this matter.'
Speculation about the prospects for political reform escalated when Zhao's profile appeared on Baidu Encyclopedia, a web-based encyclopedia similar to Wikipedia, last month, but it disappeared after just two days. Searches for 'June 4' on Baidu.com were briefly loosened up one afternoon last week.