Beijing 'man in the iron mask'

SIX years after Zhao Ziyang was arrested during the Tiananmen democracy protests, the Communist Party's former general secretary remains under house arrest in his courtyard home in central Beijing.

He turned 75 last October and is in good health. 'His hair has turned white and he looks more distinguished than ever,' a source said.

Lately, his movements have been restricted. He is not allowed to leave his house more than once a week, when he plays golf at the Shunyi course outside Beijing.

Since 1989, he has only been allowed to travel to the provinces four times. His name is rarely mentioned in the press, his picture never appears in public and no one signs petitions for his rehabilitation.

'He is China's man in the iron mask,' a Western diplomat said. 'He is treated as if he were a dissident.' But yesterday there were no guards outside the small courtyard near the Bank of China where he lives with his wife and daughter, who runs an auction company.

His son, a businessman, is believed to be based in the US.

On his trips outside the capital, Mr Zhao was allowed to visit sites in Sichuan, Jiangxi and Anhui provinces associated with his early success in reforming agriculture.

Last year, he was refused permission to travel to the coastal provinces and sources claim that for the moment, at least, he is not allowed to go anywhere.

'With things so tense around the June 4 anniversary, Jiang Zemin does not want him travelling,' a source said.

Mr Jiang, who replaced Mr Zhao, also reportedly denied his successor permission to attend the funeral of senior leader Chen Yun, who died in April.

Mr Zhao disappeared after May 19, 1989, when he visited students on a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and was shown on nationwide television with tears in his eyes. He called on the students to abandon their hunger strike and was subsequently accused of trying to split the Communist Party.

Observers believe Mr Zhao will not be allowed to return to public life because he refuses to make a self-criticism. He could only make a comeback if the party reassesses the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement.