Zhao Ziyang, the former leader of China's Communist Party who spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest, came to symbolize an incident that the nation's political elite want to ignore but the world cannot forget: the Tiananmen massacre.

Zhao, who died in a Beijing hospital Monday at age 85, was forced from office in 1989 for showing tolerance and empathy for students massing in the streets as China hurtled toward possible revolution.

Today, few Chinese students are aware that hundreds if not thousands of protesters were killed by troops at that time. But Zhao's symbolism is still viewed as a threat, and the government's reports of his death were brief and muted.

To those who remember and supported him, Zhao represented what could have been: the government that might have called off the tanks, negotiated with the student leaders and hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square and moved China toward democracy.

Instead, in May 1989, martial law was declared, Zhao was purged by Deng Xiaoping and the rest of China's leadership, and late on the night of June 3 the order went out to the military to clear Tiananmen and the city of protesters. Many civilians lost their lives, and a political reform movement closely associated with Zhao died too.

Zhao is so closely linked to those times that the government is fearful of the reaction to his death.

When Zhao was sick last year, supporters gravitated to the house near Tiananmen Square where he lived under police guard. As news spread in recent days that Zhao was hospitalized and in a coma, there were reports that security around the square was increased.

In 1989 it was the passing of another former party chief and popular reformer, Hu Yaobang, that led directly to the student-led political events.

In April of that year, Beijing university students gathered on the streets in reaction to Hu's death. They marched over the course of several days, ostensibly to mourn a beloved leader. But the demonstrations quickly took on a more politically aggressive tone, with demands on the government for democracy, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. Students raised banners in Tiananmen Square--the symbolic heart of China's political system--in an early indication that a serious challenge to the government's legitimacy was afoot.

Anniversary not marked

In China today, June 4, the anniversary of the crackdown, is not a subject of discussion or debate. The government acknowledges it only in reaction to questions from the foreign media, and when compelled to respond insists that the protests were out of control and needed to be ended to prevent turmoil.

Younger generations have come of age knowing almost nothing of what happened. Today's college students--who might otherwise have assumed the mantle of the 1989 reform movement--are generally apolitical.

The era in which the Tiananmen protests took place was unique. Just a few years into the economic reforms that are still transforming the country today, China was experimenting with political and economic liberalization, and Zhao was a proponent.

Zhao, who was born in 1919 in Henan province, was the son of a landlord and rose in governmental and party ranks as an agriculture expert. A protege of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, he was purged in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution and spent four years in disgrace before resuming his career in government.

He served as governor of Sichuan province, China's most populous, and was credited with impressive increases in farm production there. Zhao served as China's premier from 1980 to 1987, and then became general secretary of the party.

When the students took to the streets, Zhao trusted their patriotic intentions and fully expected the street protests to fade away on their own. As tensions mounted he held back while other hard-liners began to call on the government to crush the student movement.

In histories of that spring, recounted with extraordinary detail in the book "The Tiananmen Papers"--compiled from secret government dossiers--Zhao is characterized as losing the critical debate within the leadership over the students' motives: Were they reformers working within the system or were they fomenting revolution?

In the end, China's collective leadership--under the ultimate authority of Deng--decided they represented a grave threat to the Communist Party's ability to maintain control.

After being fired, Zhao was placed under house arrest. He lived the rest of his life there and was allowed occasional outings to provinces or to play golf.

The last time Zhao made a public appearance was at 4 a.m. on May 19, 1989, when he went to the square with Premier Li Peng to check on the hunger strikers.

"Knowing his political career was near an end, Zhao made remarks that brought tears to the eyes of those who heard him," according to "The Tiananmen Papers." "`We have come too late,' he said, and he begged the students to protect their health . . . and end the strike and leave . . . before it was too late."

Accompanying Zhao that morning was his deputy, Wen Jiabao, who escaped retribution and is China's current premier.

Announcement kept low-key

Zhao's death was reported without commentary Monday morning by the official Xinhua news agency in Chinese and English. It also was disseminated by a popular Chinese Web site, but it was missing from newscasts on state-run television in the initial hours after the announcement.

Though very few Chinese have access to CNN, the government blocked the cable network's China feed from reporting Zhao's death.