Thousands of people massed outside the 301 Military Hospital on the western edge of Beijing this morning as the family of Deng Xiaoping and a small group of senior leaders and friends paid their final respects to China’s “paramount leader” in a private funeral ceremony.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m., military pallbearers placed the casket containing the leader’s remains into a waiting Toyota van. Then the 30-car cortege, led by a black limousine containing Deng’s family, began the 1 1/2-mile journey along the Avenue of Eternal Peace to Babaoshan, the Beijing cemetery reserved for revolutionary heroes, where Deng was cremated later in the morning.
Along the route, tens of thousands more people--many wearing white paper flowers, which are a symbol of mourning, or holding up portraits of the dead leader--lined the sidewalks eight and nine deep as the cortege filed past under heavy security. Several raised banners, including one that said “Let’s Say One Last Time: Hello Xiaoping.”
The slogan repeated the phrase that greeted Deng, at the height of his glory as China’s senior leader in 1984, when he rode in an open car in a National Day parade at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square before an adoring populace of several hundred thousand.
Outside the ornate gate of Babaoshan--"Eight Treasures Mountain"--a hushed crowd of at least 20,000 people craned to view the procession as it entered the heavily guarded grounds.
Some onlookers climbed into the crooks and branches of cottonwood trees across the street from the cemetery or stood on the seats of their bicycles. Men raised children on their shoulders to witness the milestone event, which symbolized the final transition from revolutionary to what Deng termed “market socialist” China.
One man wore a button on his coat that said, in English, “Almost Heaven.” After the cremation, citizens adorned leafless fruit trees along the route with white paper rosettes. But the events lacked the emotion and fervor of the Maoist era in China.
The private funeral ceremony at the elite military hospital, to be followed by a nationally televised memorial at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday, was not officially announced by the government. Officials are mindful that the death of another senior leader, Hu Yaobang, sparked massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
At the hospital, one wheelchair-bound man, Wang Yongbin, tearfully watched the cortege depart. “I’m seriously ill,” he said, “but I wanted to say goodbye to the leader who brought us so many changes.”
Many of the mourners lining the route today appeared to be organized by Communist Party work units bused in early this morning for the occasion. Plainclothes police mixed with the crowd, which swelled as commuters and workers exited a nearby subway station. Office workers leaned out of open windows along the route, and restaurant kitchen crews left their stoves to watch the procession.
“Deng Xiaoping was a great man who survived many hardships to lead our country,” said Hu Ziyong, owner of Love Heart (Ai Xin) restaurant near the military hospital, where Deng died Wednesday at 92. Deng is survived by his wife and five children, including a son, Deng Pufang, who was paralyzed after he was thrown from a window at Beijing University during the turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
The family had requested a “simple and frugal” national memorial for the man who led China out of the throes of the Cultural Revolution and opened its markets to world commerce, bringing China unprecedented prosperity. But President Jiang Zemin ordered that Deng’s ashes be placed under a giant photograph at the Great Hall of the People for Tuesday’s memorial service, which will be attended by 10,000 party officials, villagers from Deng’s native Sichuan province and friends of the family.
Even so, the memorials to Deng, a tough revolutionary who was purged three times by his own party before rising to power, paled in comparison with the 1976 memorials for fellow revolutionaries Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai.
“This is nothing compared to Mao’s death,” said one onlooker, who asked not to be named.
Times researcher Anthony Kuhn contributed to this report from Babaoshan cemetery.