Tiananmen anniversary: Key witness kept hidden for 10 years

THE MOST senior Chinese politician who could testify against those who ordered the 4 June crackdown has not been seen in public for 10 years.

Zhao Ziyang was sacked as reformist Communist Party chief for being "too sympathetic" to the Tiananmen Square students. He has been under home arrest in Peking for 10 years, a political ghost hovering over today's leaders. He is kept out of sight and under surveillance but allowed out for well-guarded secretive rounds of golf. The government fears Mr Zhao, now 79, could yet provide a rallying focus for political reform.

He was last seen publicly on 19 May 1989, close to tears in Tiananmen Square and telling the hunger strikers: "We have come too late. I am sorry." He begged them to leave. Behind the scenes, he had lost the battle against the hardliners. Within hours, the Prime Minister at the time, Li Peng, proclaimed martial law. Mr Zhao was accused of splitting the party and supporting "turmoil". He was stripped of all party and government posts.

Mr Zhao's aide, Bao Tong, was the most senior party figure arrested, spending seven years in prison. Weeks ago he wrote a public letter offering a "few thoughts" on the bloody crackdown to today's leaders. "You cannot truly believe these 10 years of covering up have succeeded. This history of bloodshed remains in people's hearts; they will not forget. No one can successfully cover up such an event." He called the killings "shameful to humanity".

President Jiang Zemin, who took Mr Zhao's job as party boss in June 1989, is wary of his predecessor, as is Li Peng, who rose to number two in the hierarchy - and the man alive most despised by victims' relatives. Hardliners such as Mr Li remain bluntly unrepentent about the 4 June killings.

The elderly president of the state-run China Society for Human Rights Studies called the protesters "flies and mosquitoes" who bit the government. "We forgot to prepare fly-swatters," said Zhu Muzhi, claiming lack of rubber bullets and water cannon had "forced" them to use live ammunition.

"There was a boil," he said. "There was no other way but to have it surgically removed ... Facts prove the method used in the past cured the disease. It is not necessary to rethink whether another method could have been used." Today's crackdown is tight. Police are ordered to stop foreign journalists interviewing people about the uprising and they are watching liberal Chinese intellectuals and diplomats.

Security forces monitor universities in western Peking, hotbed of student activism in 1989. Months ago, Tiananmen Square was cordoned off for "repairs", ostensibly preparing for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on 1 October.